Jaqueline Ahl and Eric Roth take full advantage of their proximity to Tillson Lake in Gardiner, swimming the 25-acre lagoon in the warm months and hiking the trails curling around it.
They also own a canoe. Gliding a few inches above the water gives them a unique perspective.
“Part of it is…being able to be closer to things like beavers and ducks and whatnot,” Ahl said. “There’s a bald eagle that hangs around a lot. These are all things that if you’re just walking around the lake, you don’t get to see close up.”
The couple received a letter March 28 telling them the lake, part of the Minnewaska State Park Preserve, could be “de-watered” — the dam holding it would be dissembled and the lake would drain out.
Roth called Tillson Lake “the entire focus” of the community and said it was “pretty shocking” to receive the letter.
The couple, who rent, might reconsider their living arrangements if the de-watering goes through.
“We love being here,” Roth said. “It’s a very good place for us, but, if they drain the lake, we would have to kind of rethink the whole thing.”
The letter was sent by the Palisades Interstate Park Commission (PIPC), which cares for the state-owned land, to area residents because the dam creating the lake was deemed structurally deficient, and repairs would run into the millions of dollars.
Though the language of the letter seemed to suggest the process for removing the dam was already underway, the question of Tillson Lake’s fate is now up in the air as the PIPC undertakes a six-month study to determine the available options. A newly-formed citizen’s group, Friends of Tillson Lake, has hired consultants to challenge a possible de-watering, state and federal politicians have weighed in, and a major environmental group, Riverkeeper, has come out in support of removing the dam and returning the area to its natural state.
A Community Lake
Tillson Lake was formed when a private landowner dammed the Palmaghatt Kill in 1930.
Mario Torchio remembers going there in the late 1970s, when the lake had a sandy beach, diving boards and a concession stand.
“It was more of a beach experience,” he said. “You would go and lay out in the sun and buy hot dogs and stuff like that.”
The lake was drained under suspicious circumstances by the property owner after locals fought back against his proposal to place seasonal trailers along its shores, Torchio said.
Tillson Lake remained this way until 1995, when it was allowed to refill, but gone were the floating docks and beaches, and the lake existed as a recreational spot, where locals kayaked, swam and fished, Torchio said.
The area almost underwent dramatic development a second time, in the mid-2000s, when a new property owner wanted to build a gated community between Tillson Lake and the Shawangunk Ridge but was stopped in part by the “Save the Ridge” movement.
The land was then purchased by two open-space groups, which passed the land to the state, where it became part of the Minnewaska State Park Preserve.
The same dam has existed on the land since 1930 and is in dire need of repair. Part of the spillway is visibly crumbling, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) considers the dam “unsound.” It is also categorized as a “Class C dam,” defined as “a dam whose failure may cause loss of life and/or other severe consequences,” according to the DEC.
Morey Gottesman, the president of Friends of Tillson Lake, hopes New York can come up with the money for repairs, but he’s willing to go to battle if they can’t.
Gottesman was the president of a property-owners group during the Save The Ridge years, but “once the lake was acquired by the state, we all kind of went to sleep,” he said. “We figured this is state land, it’s park land, they’ll do whatever it takes to maintain it.”
The community felt like it was “punched in the chest” when they received the letters from the PIPC announcing the possible de-watering, Gottesman said, but added he didn’t feel adversarial to the PIPC, and had good things to say about its commissioner, Jim Hall.
“We feel their pain,” he said. “Budgeting is a complex and hard-fought deal these days and finding money for state parks when there’s so much else that needs to be done can be a monumental task.”
Gottesman sees a distinction between the Tillson Lake dam and some other dams on Hudson River tributaries.
“This is not a legacy dam that Farmer Brown put up to pen some water for his cows,” he said. “We agree with those that say those dams should go away, (that) they don’t serve any valuable purpose.”
Friends of Tillson Lake have hired three different environmental consulting firms to prove the value of the lake.
A report by Hudsonia lists some of the species found at the lake: bald eagle, red-shouldered hawk, scarlet tanager, painted turtle, beaver, muskrat, brown trout, large-mouthed bass and brown bullhead, among others, though some of the fish species are non-native and were stocked for anglers.
The report admits the removal of the dam could allow some species to move up and down the Palmaghatt Kill unimpeded but concludes that “we believe the habitat functions and other ecosystem services of the existing lake are greater than would exist following the proposed dam removal.”
Gottesman also takes issue with the 2010 Minnewaska State Park Preserve Mater Plan having to be revised in congruence with a possible de-watering, suggesting the park is going against its originally stated intentions.
Friends of Tillson Lake aren’t the only ones concerned. The towns of Gardiner and Shawangunk have passed resolutions condemning the plan. Ulster County Executive Mike Hein sent a forceful letter to the Friends of Tillson Lake supporting their efforts and offering his help, in which he said the PIPC “shattered the commitment it had previously made in its own master plan to protect Tillson Lake.”
Outgoing state Sen. John Bonacic and outgoing Congressman John Faso also sent letters to the PIPC knocking their proposal and telling them to be more diligent in finding funding for repairs.
The Cost of a Lake
The Tillson Lake Dam has had problems in the past. It was breached twice, first in 1938, when a storm caused the failure of the dam’s core wall, resulting in the loss of farm equipment and animals, and the destruction of several local bridges, according to a 2012 engineering assessment prepared for the state.
The dam failed a second time in 1955, though again no one was injured, according to the assessment.
Improvements were made to the dam after both breaches, but the fundamental structure remained the same.
The March 24 letter to residents stated the cost for repairing the dam would range from $7-9 million.
However, Friends of Tillson Lake requested documents through the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) about the costs of repairing the dam and received a 2012 cost estimate that put the repairs at about $2.7 million, and a 2016 estimate that put the cost at about $2.8 million, though neither of these figures take into consideration contingencies.
Both cost estimates are based on the same engineering assessment, which was undertaken as part of the 2012 cost estimate.
PIPC Commissioner Jim Hall said the discrepancy was due to the engineering assessment being cursory, a “very brief evaluation of some alternatives.”
“What they did was basically conceptional — there wasn’t really any ground truth to it,” he said.
The assessment was now also nearly seven years old and didn’t take into consideration current conditions, Hall said.
He expects the cost of the repairs to “be in the 5-7 million range.”
“By the time you get done with design and all the other construction management costs, they could end up being higher. I think that’s where the higher range comes from,” Hall said.
The cost of removing the dam would cost more than $1 million, Hall said, but more accurate figures would not be available until a new design assessment was completed, which would take at least six months.
Hall said it came down to an issue of funding.
“From our perspective, if something’s funded for this dam, that’d be great, and if there’s more funding for these dams (in general), that’s even better,” he said.
Cash for Dams
State Assemblymember Kevin Cahill, whose district encompasses most of Ulster County, including Tillson Lake, also wrote a letter to the PIPC after residents received word of the proposal, and said he is keeping close tabs on the issue.
To get funding to repair the dam, the PIPC would have to request money in the state budget, Cahill said.
To de-water the dam, the PIPC might also request money in the budget, though the project would not necessarily require it, Cahill said.
Without the money in the budget for de-watering, the PIPC would have to “rearrange their priorities, and something else would suffer for them to pay for it,” he said.
Getting the repairs into the budget might be tricky, Cahill said, as the item would have to be haggled over between the state Senate, state Assembly and Governor as part of the yearly budget negotiations.
“These are often — most of the time — not successful,” he said. “There are several billions of dollars more requests than our budget can absorb.”
Cahill did not blame the PIPC for the situation, saying the problem was bigger.
“We underfund all of our infrastructure…we underfund capital investment, and we underfund maintaining our assets, because there’s already so many demands on our dollars on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
Dams were in “critical condition” across New York and the country as a whole, he added, and it was a credit to the PIPC that they are at least attempting to address the one dam’s issues.
Cahill is the sponsor of a piece of legislation, the “Pennies for Parks” bill, he hopes will address this gap in state park funding.
The bill would level a tax on one-use plastic bags handed out at stores and place the resulting money in a trust fund for capital projects in parks, whether historic, natural, or urban.
Funds received through this tax would peak, then quickly diminish as people stopped using the bags to avoid the fee, Cahill said, making the tax ill-suited for filling state coffers on a recurring basis, but perfect for capital projects.
The tax would raise about $300 million, Cahill said, more than enough for Tillson Lake dam repairs and many other projects.
Should The Lake Be Saved?
Riverkeeper, the storied Hudson Valley environmental group, supports the de-watering of Tillson Lake, arguing the environment would benefit from the artificial lake’s removal and the re-establishment of a free-flowing Palmaghatt Kill.
Two essays penned by Riverkeeper argue the point. In one, Paul Gallay writes, “In general, dams fragment our rivers by blocking their natural flow, prevent fish from reaching critical spawning and feeding habitats and keep sediments from moving downstream where they’re needed to prevent erosion and maintain water quality.”
This argument is widely accepted by the environmental community.
George Jackman, who wrote one of the essays, describes the Palmaghatt Kill above Tillson Lake as a high-quality habitat teeming with wildlife.
“Then all of sudden, it hits a wall,” he said.
“Every dam creates a re-set point…you have lost all that valuable sediment, all those nutrients and all those minerals, and all that complex habitat that is found within the landscape,” he added.
Not only does the Tillson Lake dam disallow the passage of creatures up- and downstream, but creates a chemically and thermally stratified body of water deprived of oxygen and filled mostly with stocked fish, Jackman said.
The DEC also generally supports the removal of dams. The DEC’s Hudson River Estuary Program is “working towards restoring free-flowing tributaries to the Hudson River,” according to their website.
When asked whether the Tillson Lake dam should be removed for environmental reasons, the DEC press office replied that “dam removal can be beneficial for Hudson River species and aquatic life everywhere in the watershed.”
“However,” the response continued, “DEC recognizes that dams can also provide community benefits such as water supply and recreation. When a dam is failing, each situation must be evaluated individually, because every situation is unique…When state funding is involved, community values are carefully considered.”
The Catskills chapter of Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit advocating for the conservation of freshwater rivers, also came out for de-watering Tillson Lake.
“In environmental and economic terms, removing the dam is a no-brainer,” according to their June newsletter.
Superintendent of Minnewaska State Park Eric Humphreys said about 400,000 people visit the park a year.
When asked how well-visited Tillson Lake was compared to Lake Minnewaska and Lake Awosting in the park, Humphreys laughed and replied, “very little.”
“It’s not a destination point by any means,” he said. “It’s used mostly by the locals down there.”
Jeff Anzevino, director of land use policy for Scenic Hudson, another Hudson Valley environmental group, said his organization did not have a position on Tillson Lake, but hoped any action on the state’s part was backed up by rigorous scientific study.
Friends of Tillson Lake has an argument in its back pocket.
According to state conservation law, wetlands over 12.4 acres receive certain protections. Part of the law involves the mapping of wetlands of this size in the state.
New York does not include the Tillson Lake area in this category, but Friends of Tillson Lake is challenging this.
Two of the three environmental studies the group commissioned are on this subject, and both conclude the wetlands in the area exceed the 3.7 acres the PIPC has designated as wetlands in the area.
The studies, by Quenzer Environmental and Hickory Creek Consulting, both state a large portion of the lake itself is wetlands. Adding this to the 3.7 acres around the lake the PIPC considers wetlands, both studies conclude the area crosses the 12.4 acre threshold.
The Hickory Creek study was sent to the PIPC, Gottesman said, and the Quenzer study, which he just received Nov. 20, will be.
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