Thursday, January 03, 2008

Hinckley Workgroup Whitewash

Last fall Greater Utica lived through the worst water crisis in memory. In fact, it was the ONLY water crisis in memory because, for the first time, our use of water was restricted. Water level in the reservoir sunk perilously close to the intake level. And yet, weather conditions surely did not seem all that unusual. Yes, it was drier than normal, but it was nothing compared to the 1963-1964 drought which went on for months -- when lawns everywhere were brown --- but when there was no water crisis. That was a time when water use in Greater Utica was greater because we had more people and a lot of water-using industries. That was also a time when traffic on the Canal was greater.

So our recent water crisis appears to have been someone's screw up.

We, the public, were led to believe that the Governor's Hinckley Reservoir Working Group would tell us what went wrong. . . . Don't bet on it.

Abundantly clear from its "Interim Report to the Governor," the screw up is being given a whitewash.

The interim report, while interesting for its collection of various facts and figures, tell us nothing that we did not already know.
In the summer and fall of 2007, Hinckley Reservoir water levels were well below normal for that time of the year. In September 2007, the Mohawk Valley Water Authority (MVWA), Oneida County and the NYSDOH raised concerns about the continued operation of the drinking water supply. By mid-September reservoir water levels were at a historic low for September and declining due to lack of precipitation and continued reservoir releases. The Hinckley Reservoir, which is the sole source of water for approximately 130,000 people, was reported to be at 17% of capacity. [p. 3/27]
Following the above quote we then are given a history of the responses. But No Where are we told HOW the reservoir was permitted to get as low as it did.

The outline for the Final Report (due in March), Appendix 6, is not clear that we will ever be told exactly what went wrong. Of course, this is what is expected when the foxes are put in charge of the hen house. The Working Group is an "insiders group" composed exclusively of government agencies who have direct control of what goes on at Hinckley, and who can, and have, used an exemption under the Freedom of Information Law to keep its written communications from the public. Affected private interests were deliberately kept out of the group. Certain legislators have called for a truly independent study of what went on, but these legislators appear to have been marginalized.

At best, this group will produce a communication scheme that the agencies will use to prevent a crisis from happening again. At worst, the group will make a lot of recommendations regarding water supply use and economic development issues and promote agendas that have nothing to do with preventing what happened last fall.

It would be a breath of fresh air if we are told what really went wrong.


Unknown said...

Nice work.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of people know who the blame goes to on this one. The Canal Authority! Strikeslip I know you think the only thing the Water Authority can do right is turn itself back over to the City of Utica... the good old days of rape and pillage of water system money to balance the Utica budget. But PASNY, MVWA, and the community tried to get the Canal Authority take notice. But not until the MVWA asked the Oneida County to declare an emergency did the canals really stop their stupidity.

Strikeslip said...

Waterboy - I suspect that you are right re the Canal Authority on this one . . . but I would not be so quick to dismiss MVWA completely.

The claim is that Hinckley was at only 17% capacity . . . but if that estimate was based on reservoir water surface elevation I bet it was a lot less because of the almost 100 years of silt accumulation. Add to that all the silt that was released from the Gray reservoir when MVWA destroyed it . . . where did it go?

And what about the fact that MVWA was not contributing from Gray an amount of water equal to its taking from Hinckley? When water flows in West Canada went down to 140 CFS, MVWA's failure to contribute 30-35 CFS would be significant. Perhaps the closing of the fishery could have been averted.

Anonymous said...

Like any construction project there are requirements for silt protection. When dealing with a stream they become even more critical. When the dam was taken down it was only brought down to the existing dam footing so a lot of the silt is still in Gray or passed throught since the dam was left "open" for 30 plus years.

If it was left up would you be the one complaining that the Water Authority paid millions to rehab a dam that is used for flow once every 40 years for fish?

Strikeslip said...

I would not complain because maintaining Gray Dam and supplementing low flows in the West Canada was a prerequisite to MVWA taking water from Hinckley... and a prerequisite to taking water from the West Canada. The alternative is NO water. If MVWA did not want water under these conditions, then it had the obligation of renegotiating the agreement with the state, and its several agreements with private landowners, to do away with these conditions before destroying the dam.

If MVWA wants to take the full amount it claims (48.5MGD) it is obliged to increase storage at Gray (or further upstream) to almost 1/4 the storage in Hinckley.

That's a lot of water.

As for the fish, I am not a fisherman. But there are a lot of landowners who are and who have rights -- and for some, income -- that were taken away by MVWA's failures. If your right to fish on your own property was interfered with, wouldn't you be angry?

Since when does government take a right away without compensation?

Anonymous said...

They didn't take it away they put it back to the way it was pre-dam days. Do you think the US Goverment should give compensation to the land owners?

Anonymous said...

Sorry. Compensation to land owners around Griffis AFB

Strikeslip said...

Waterboy - I am only speaking of the agreements between MVWA and various landowners -- and the state where the state was involved. If the US government is interfering with private rights (which I do not know to be the case), then the US government would have to compensate for any rights it may have taken.

Under the doctrine of riparian rights each landowner along a stream has the right to use the full flow in the stream undiminished in quality or quantity by the use of others. MVWA however, is taking water out of the stream, which is an interference with the rights of landowners down stream. It can only do this with the agreement of the affected people and the approval of the state. But both (1) agreement with at least some of the downstream owners and (2) the state approval, from what I have seen, are contingent upon MVWA contributing water to the stream from its own storage under conditions of low flow -- such as the conditions that occurred last fall.

Since MVWA has not done this, we now have the Canal Corp (which appears to be speaking on behalf of the state -- though I could take issue with that) requesting payment for the water. I do not think Canal Corp has the right to charge for water per se, but I think it DOES have the right to charge for MVWA's USE of Hinckley as a substitute for MVWA's own reservoir at Gray.

That is why we MVWA customers are now paying for a very expensive lawsuit between MVWA, Canals, and others, to determine just who has the right to do what. Hundreds of thousands of dollars to lawyers in a law suit could have been better spent either repairing the dam or in a process of negotiating new agreements to everyone's satisfaction.

While what MVWA has done is clearly significant in so far as confused water rights and litigation costs is concerned, I do not know if it was significant in the scenario that played out last fall. Maybe yes, maybe no. The working group should look into the issue -- but it does not seem interested in reporting on anything that would indicate mistakes on ANYONE'S part. THAT is crazy since undoubtedly someone or several people screwed up.

The blame may fall on one agency or be shared by several -- what ever it is, we all should be told what happened.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember reading "A right to Fish" in the Constitution or Bill of Rights...

Strikeslip said...

The "right to fish" is a property right under common law -- therefore it is protected under the constitution.

Anonymous said...

Common law? Could you provide a citation?

Strikeslip said...

Wikipedia has a nice summary for the lay person at:

But you could also check out "Environmental Law" by William H. Rodgers, West Publishing, at Section 2.15.

Some case law: Townsend v McDonald, 12 NY 381 (1855); United Paper Board Co. v Iroquois Pulp & Paper Co., 226 NY 38 (1919); Gray v Ft. Plain, 105 App.Div 215 (1905).

Strikeslip said...

PS -- The right to fish is mentioned in the Wikipedia article. The others provide some background into the general concept of riparian rights. Fishing by individuals would be considered a "reasonable use" of the water -- and within the concept of a riparian right.. but setting up a commercial fishery and catching all the fish probably would not be within the concept because it would harm other persons' "reasonable use."