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Riverkeeper Backs Plan To Remove A Dam In Ulster County

Courtesy of Sabina Kurz

A plan to remove a dam and drain a lake in Ulster County continues to be controversial.

Environmental group Riverkeeper has weighed in on a controversial plan to remove a dam and drain Tillson Lake. A group working to save the lake takes issue with Riverkeeper’s stance. And it all comes as a commission says it needs to remove the dam, which it claims does not meet safety requirements and is too costly to repair.

George Jackman is habitat restoration manager at Riverkeeper. He wants to see the Tillson Lake Dam removed to allow for the free flow of the Hudson River’s tributaries.

“All obsolete dams that don’t have a justifiable reason to exist should be removed because they impair the ecological health of the river and ultimately, the Hudson River, because the river flows, the sum flow of all its tributaries,” Jackman says. “And there over 1,500 of these things. They’re equivalent to a blood clot in a living organism.”

Jackman wants to see a free-flowing Palmaghatt Kill, which originates near Lake Minnewaska, but ultimately is blocked by the Tillson Lake Dam.

“What we have is a situation… this is part of the public trust,” Jackman says. “First of all, rivers are part of the public trust. They’re like wild animals. They should not be constrained.”

The executive director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission had sent a letter in March to homeowners near Tillson Lake, saying the Tillson Lake Dam no longer meets dam safety requirements for Class C dams. And the Commission is taking steps to design and seek approval for the dam’s removal with plans to restore the lake back to a natural stream corridor. Annie O’Neill is founding member of Save Tillson Lake.

“This didn’t start as a dam issue. It started as we don’t have the money to repair it. So I think that to residents it’s a much more complex issue,” says O’Neill. “It’s about recreational use It’s about an ecosystem that’s developed by the lake. We have an amazingly extensive new bird list.”

The lake is in Gardiner, where the town board passed a resolution seeking to preserve the dam and Tillson Lake. Karen Schneller-McDonald is a water resources specialist and author on the subject of such resources. She says the issue is complex and residents like O’Neill have raised valid concerns about the potential decline in property values and recreational aspects. But Riverkeeper, too, she says, has valid points, as there is value, in general, in removing dams and restoring ecological health to free-flowing streams and rivers. But all dam removal situations, she says, are not the same.

“The ecological argument seems to be hostage of both groups here,” Schneller-McDonald says. “And, from my perspective, we really don’t have the mass of ecological information that I would like to see to draw some good conclusions about what the effects of dam removal or of keeping the dam would be.”

Riverkeeper’s Jackman believes there could be an almost immediate positive effect after removing the dam.

“Two years ago we removed a barrier on the Wynants Kill in Troy,” says Jackman. “Within four days, river herring showed up and started spawning in the creek that had been blocked for over 100 years.”

He notes the Tillson Lake Dam has been in place for fewer than 100 years. And removing it, he argues, would enhance habitat for aquatic invertebrates and wild trout. O’Neill, though, is concerned about what would become of a drained Tillson Lake site.

“It’s a 25-acre site,” O’Neill says. “It’s not so simple to, you just bulldoze it, you just knock down the dam and the stream will flow happily on its way.”

The Palisades Interstate Park Commission’s executive director has said it could cost up to $9 million to bring the dam into compliance and after exploring options and seeking funds to do that, the Commission came up empty-handed. O’Neill thinks that estimated cost is too high.

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