July 13, 2006

George E. Pataki, Governor
Executive Chamber
State Capitol
Albany, NY 12224

Dear Governor Pataki:

This is a follow-up to my letter to you of June 14, 2006 in which I alerted you to the fact that the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District was rolling dice with the safety of downstream municipalities by keeping water levels unreasonably high on Great Sacandaga Lake, the 29-mile-long reservoir that regulates the flow of the Upper Hudson River.

On that date, the reservoir's level stood at 770.5 feet above sea level -- which meant that there were only 6 inches of available storage. (Above 771, the water pours uncontrollably over the dam's spillway.) I pointed out that a flood-control reservoir that is full or nearly full is equivalent to no flood control reservoir at all.

Two days later, the Schenectady Daily Gazette ran a story about my charges. It included a response from the District's Chief Engineer who said that the District was managing the lake according to the terms of its 2002 Federal relicensing agreement and that downstream municipalities were not in danger of being flooded. He added: "The Offer of Settlement provides flood protection at all levels of operation." That comment would come back to haunt him.

Two weeks later, after an extended period of heavy precipitation, the reservoir rose 6 feet in just 4 days, hitting a record height of 773.5 on June 30, 2006. Water poured 2.5 feet over the spillway, turning it into a mini-Niagara -- even though the valves were wide open and releasing 12,000 cubic feet of water per second (today, by comparison, the District is discharging about 5,000 cubic feet per second).

And in spite of the Chief Engineer's assurances, there was some flooding downstream -- for example, at Fort Edward. All along the Upper Hudson, the rushing waters tore at marinas, sending boat owners scrambling to protect their investments.

Fortunately for Great Sacandaga's downstream beneficiaries -- and most of them will never know how closely they dodged the bullet -- the reservoir's level was at its target elevation of 767.5 when the storms hit. That was the level specified for that date (June 26) by the 2002 Federal license. What you need to understand is that this was an anomaly. This was the first time in nine months that the water level was not above target. For downstream municipalities, this was an extremely close call.

What this episode also underscores is that the engineers who operated Great Sacandaga Lake from its completion in 1930 until the Federal license was reissued in 2002 knew what they were doing. They considered the reservoir full at 768, carefully allowing three extra feet for emergency storage. When the level exceeded 768, they quickly dropped it back -- with few exceptions.

Then came along the 2002 license, which instructed the District to store water aggressively for future use by downstream hydroelectric projects. But there was a qualifier. The license stipulates that the District should "make reasonable efforts to limit water releases from Great Sacandaga Lake ... for the purpose of minimizing energy losses to downstream hydroelectric projects." The qualifier is the phrase "reasonable efforts."

To me, that phrase does not mean that the District should keep water levels so high that they endanger the safety of downstream people and property. Let's look at the statistics:

  • Since July 1, 2005, the reservoir's level has exceeded 768, its "full point," on 139 days; there were fewer than 3 feet of storage on one day out of every 3. Does that sound reasonable?

  • On 101 of those days, the level exceeded 769; there were fewer than two feet of storage on one day out of every 4. Does that sound reasonable?

  • And on 53 of those days, the level exceeded 770; there was less than 1 foot of storage on one day out of every 7. Does that sound reasonable?

  • Today, nearly two weeks after the reservoir peaked at 773.5, its level is at 769.3; its waters are less than 2 feet below the tip of the spillway and nearly 2.5 feet above target. Does that sound reasonable?

    If you were the mayor of Albany, Troy, Rensselaer, Watervliet, or Green Island, and you paid the District an annual assessment for flood control, wouldn't statistics like these interfere with your sleep at night? I think so.

    As for the Chief Engineer's assurances that the 2002 license is a perfect document that anticipates, and allows for, all of Mother Nature's changing moods, the response of any sane citizen to such a claim by any government agency -- with Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans fresh in memory -- ought to be to run for the hills.

    I have written you these two letters to establish liability for the major flooding and massive damage that will eventually occur on the Upper Hudson if the Regulating District is not brought under adult supervision. Since you wield executive control over the District, I urge you to take immediate steps to assure that this huge flood-control reservoir is operated with the safety of downstream municipalities as its top priority.

    Sincerely,

    Peter VanAvery
    Batchellerville Bridge Action Committee