A group of local citizens are pushing for New York to designate Tillson Lake as wetlands as part of their fight to save the spot from being “de-watered” as state Senator Jen Metzger and a storied environmental group threw their support behind the effort.
The dam creating the Minnewaska State Park Preserve lake is in dire need of repair, and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission (PIPC) proposed removing the dam and letting the lake drain in March 2017 because the price tag for repairs could run as high as $9 million, a figure now being re-examined.
The Friends of Tillson Lake, formed after Gardiner residents learned about the proposed de-watering in a letter from the PIPC, commissioned a study from the consulting firm Quenzer Environmental last year that concluded more than 12.4 acres in and around the lake were wetlands, crossing a size threshold giving the area protections under state law.
An earlier report, by Hickory Creek Consulting, stated the area “likely” included more than 12.4 acres of wetlands, with the report stating more study was needed.
Wetlands over 12.4 acres in New York fall under the state Environmental Conservation Law and the jurisdiction of the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
Only a small corner of Tillson Lake is mapped by the state as wetlands, so the lake currently doesn’t receive state protections. However, the federal government, which maintains its own maps in its National Wetlands Inventory, considers a much larger part of the lake wetlands.
Newly-minted state Senator Jen Metzger brought up possible DEC jurisdiction while voicing her support for maintaining the lake.
“If it does fall within the DEC’s jurisdiction as a wetland…it should be protected under the law,” she said.
It is unclear exactly what would happen if the lake fell under the DEC’s jurisdiction, but anyone seeking to develop DEC-regulated wetlands must acquire a Freshwater Wetland Permit under state law.
The DEC undertakes a cost-benefit analysis when considering permits. Wetlands are designated by the DEC as one of five classes. “Class 1” wetlands are the most protected, “reduction of which is acceptable only in the most unusual circumstances,” while only “wanton or controlled degradation or loss” is unacceptable with “Class Five” wetlands, according to state law.
An applicant can propose offsetting wetlands loss through developing new wetlands when seeking a permit, according to state law.
Tillson Lake would be an unusual case if it received DEC protections, since the permit applicant would be the PIPC, another government agency.
The PIPC is at least four months away from producing a study examining the costs of repairing or deconstructing the dam. In the PIPC letter to Gardiner residents, Jim Hall wrote repairs would cost $7-9 million. Studies acquired by the Friends of Tillson Lake through the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) put the figure much lower, though Hall said in November these studies were outdated and cursory.
Hall suggested in November the new PIPC study might produce a lower price tag than was stated in the letter, perhaps in the $5-7 million range.
Deconstructing the dam and de-watering the lake would likely cost $1 million, according to Hall.
Senator Metzger said she believed the PIPC study would come back with a figure lower than the original cost and that she would collaborate with state Assemblymember Kevin Cahill to see what programs could fund the repairs.
A third report commissioned by the Friends of Tillson Lake, this one examining its wildlife, “established the habitat value” of the lake, Metzger said, adding the lake had “important recreational and community value.”
The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, founded in the 1960s by Pete Seeger to preserve and protect the Hudson River and its watershed, used similar language in a letter of support sent to the DEC, PIPC and others, calling Tillson Lake “a valuable regional asset.”
“It is a component of Minnewaska State Park Preserve, one of the region’s iconic parks, and is a vital recreational and community resource for Ulster County and beyond, according to the letter.
The letter also cites the Quenzer report, stating the “report demonstrates that the Lake would qualify as a protected state wetland under the Freshwater Wetlands Act, raising serious questions on the adequacy of the PIPC mitigation plan.”
“We are unaware of any other instance where a treasured waterbody in a state park would be intentionally removed by the park agency,” according to the letter.
The letter puts Clearwater in direct opposition to Riverkeeper and the Catskills chapter of Trout Unlimited, environmental groups supporting the dam’s removal.
The groups want the Palmaghatt Kill, which feeds the lake, to return to its natural state, before the dam was erected by a private landowner in the 1930s.
The Tillson Lake dam jams up yet another tributary of the Hudson River, preventing wildlife, nutrients and sediment from moving up- and down-stream, according to Riverkeeper Habitat Restoration Manager George Jackman,while creating an less-then-healthy lake filled with mostly stocked fish.
Rep. Antonio Delgado, whose congressional district includes Tillson Lake, was reviewing the issue, according to a spokesperson.
The Tillson Lake dam has been 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
Though repairs were made to the then-privately-owned dam, part of the spillway is now visibly crumbling, and the 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.