Water Recedes and Anxiety Rises After Hole Opens Near Upstate New York Dam
DEPOSIT, N.Y. — It has been a half-century since the waters first rose at Cannonsville Reservoir, engulfing several towns, swaths of farmland and untold family memories under billions of gallons of water, all to slake New York City’s unrelenting thirst.
But over the last two weeks, those waters have been receding, as city officials try to contain the effects of a potentially dangerous accident that has allowed water to seep out of a rock embankment near the base of the reservoir’s 175-foot-high earthen dam.
Since discovering the problem earlier this month, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which operates the reservoir, has been diverting or releasing more than a billion gallons of water a day, creating a widening ring of newly exposed rock and sand around the rim. Crews are monitoring the dam and water pressure gauges around the clock, and amassing materials and equipment for possible emergency repairs. Local officials and residents, too, are on alert, with public meetings being held along the Delaware River Valley.
And while engineers say that the communities in this upstate area are safe, the episode has nevertheless reignited the long-simmering anxieties of those who live in the shadow of the aging reservoir, as well as the animosity they feel toward those who benefit from its waters more than 100 miles away.
“Sure it worries you,” said Bob Lamoreaux, whose house sits about a mile below the dam. “But if there’s a rupture,” he added, there would not be “time enough to think about it.”
The seepage began with a bore hole drilled on July 8 by a construction company doing preliminary work on a new $70 million hydroelectric plant planned for the reservoir that is envisioned as a way of raising revenue for the city’s water system. The hole pierced an aquifer, causing turbid water to bubble up through a rock layer about 50 feet from the base of the dam, a troubling sign for engineers who worry that the flow, if it continues, could undercut the dam’s stability.
About a week after the hole was drilled, the environmental department began to rapidly draw down the reservoir, which holds more than 95 billion gallons of water and was nearly full after a very wet June. Some of that water has rushed toward the city via the West Delaware Tunnel — part of New York’s elaborate water-distribution network — while even more has spilled into the Delaware River, producing sudden rapids and sunken islets.
On Friday, crews outside Deposit — a village of some 1,100 people about 120 miles northwest of the city — were expected to begin work on a two-step fix: First, they would drill several relief wells uphill from the bore hole to relieve water pressure in the aquifer, and then they would use industrial-strength grout to press the bore hole shut.
Named for a submerged riverfront hamlet, the Cannonsville Reservoir stores up to an eighth of the city’s water, but department officials say there is no threat that city residents or about one million customers in the suburbs will go dry.
Still, even before the repairs had begun, city officials were quick to accept blame for the problem.
“This type of condition should not have happened,” Paul V. Rush, a deputy commissioner at the environmental agency in charge of water supply, said at a meeting in Deposit on Thursday night to update the community on the reservoir’s status. “New York City is fully responsible for what happened. We’re responsible for what goes on at that dam.”
Such sentiments may do little to appease upstate residents who say the city’s need for water has often eclipsed their need for a sense of security.
“I think it’s all over dollars,” said Erica McDowell, 34, who lives with her three children 2.8 miles — she knows the exact distance — from the reservoir’s wall of water. “I think they should have left the dam alone.”
Such ambivalence is common here, in part because of years of past grievances. The city seized the land to build the reservoir — one of 19 in its system along with three lakes — by eminent domain more than 50 years ago. In the process, hundreds of residents were displaced, and thousands of graves relocated, from small lumber, stone and dairy towns with names like Rock Rift, Rockroyal and Beerston.
Today, little evidence remains of those places: A simple marker at the reservoir’s southern edge notes “Former Site of Cannonsville,” while a veterans’ memorial on the opposite shore cites “Cannonsville Members” who died in the course of military service.
But people remember.
“My family lost its farms to the Cannonsville Reservoir,” said Lynda J. Swart, who lives in Deposit and is the state committee chairman of Daughters of the American Revolution. “So this goes back.”
Ms. Swart was one of about 100 people who gathered at the State Theater in Deposit for the meeting on Thursday. Many of those on hand asked pointed questions about a range of subjects, including the potential impact of the accident on fishing, both for recreational anglers and those conducting tours on the Delaware. Mr. Rush said that he expected no fish kills in the reservoir as a result of the drawdown, and that some fishermen might even thrive, at least temporarily, as a result of frigid water drawn from the bottom rushing downstream.
Indeed, river outfitters to the south were seeing benefits to the added water. Allen Crouthamel, a manager at Kittatinny Canoes in Milford, Pa., said the river was at least a foot higher than average, and though colder by a few degrees than usual, canoeists and kayakers were taking advantage of the conditions.
“The white water has definitely picked up,” Mr. Crouthamel said.
Others were also trying to find an upside to the situation. Mayor Robert Rynearson Jr. of Deposit said he hoped the accident would salve what he called “a lot of bad politics and hurt feelings between the municipalities and the management of the dam.”
“At lot of people here say, ‘At least the Indians got beads,’ ” said Mr. Rynearson, a reference to the story about how Dutch settlers acquired Manhattan. “But I’m hoping we can build something positive out of this.”
Mr. Rush and other officials hoped that the work set to begin on Friday could be completed quickly, but said it could drag into September and leave the reservoir drained by half, or more. The signs of the drawdown were already apparent this week: Between Thursday evening and Friday morning, for example, as wispy fog floated over the placid surface, the water’s edge had receded about four feet.
Residents say they have long lived with the reality that the dam exists, and is largely outside their control.
“We just have to go by what they say,” Mr. Lamoreaux said as the Delaware lapped at the edges of his backyard. “We can’t go up there and plug it.”