The reservoir's historic structures & ecosystems are an opportunity to create a unique environmental education center for our children & their future.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

End of the Road?

After over 7 years of Brooklyn and Queens residents fighting to prevent the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation from needlessly spending millions of taxpayer's dollars to destroy an environmentally significant 50 acre site, it appears that we are nearing the end of the road.

On Monday, June 30, 2014, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, along with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, held a public meeting at St. Pancras School in Glendale, Queens. The purpose of the meeting was to answer questions about the imminent decommissioning process of the Ridgewood Reservoir, which, according to the parks department application to the NYSDEC, would involve creating three very large breaches in the reservoir's surrounding berms. In fact, one would be large enough to allow trucks to enter the basins and drive along a roadway that will be constructed. You can read some of the media coverage of the meeting here. I was not completely happy with the coverage as most of the reporters seemed to have overlooked some of the most significant revelations during the question and answer period.

The meeting represented the climax of the parks department's campaign of misleading the community about their intentions and being completely disingenuous over the past 7 years when it came to responding to the community's desires and concerns. In 2007 the parks department began a series of public meetings entitled "Community Listening Sessions Regarding Future Plans for the Ridgewood Reservoirs". What, on the surface, appeared to be a genuine interest in the public's aspirations for their future use of this unintentional nature sanctuary, soon became clear was merely lip service as they had already decided on the area's long term development. When the community unequivocally declared that they did not want the reservoir basins developed, the parks department responded by having a second set of surveys filled out by a group who was shilling for their plan. It should come as no surprise to anyone that, despite past assurances, the parks department will be breaching the basins, creating roads and ramps to allow truck access and giving permission to the contractors to "dewater" (drain) the work basins as needed. All this will happen despite the fact that the parks department's own contractors determined that not only is the site ecologically significant, but certainly wetlands and that the basins contain at least 3 endangered species of plants.

Here is a summary of the June 30th meeting:

Agency participants:

Joelle Byrer, NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, Queens Capital Team Leader
Jonna Carmona-Graf, NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, Chief of Capital Management
Thomas Panzone, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Regional Citizen Participation Specialist
Alon Dominitz, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Chief of Dam Safety
Venetia Lannon, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Region 2 Director
Steven Zahn, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Regional Natural Resources Supervisor

Also present but did not participate in the meeting was NYC Department of Parks and Recreation park administrator Debbie Kuha.

Moderator: Thomas Panzone

The meeting began with an introduction by Venetia Lannon. Two years ago Ms. Lannon visited the reservoir with members of Queens Community Board 5. I was present for the tour and while speaking positively about the site's habitat, she made no commitment to her agency responding to our wetlands mapping application.

Ms. Lannon gave a brief intro pertaining to the purpose of the meeting, which was mainly to hear the community's concerns about the decommissioning process. This was motivated, primarily, by all the letters they received from community groups and political leaders questioning the reservoir's designation. She started by describing the physical properties of a dam as being any structure that can impound water. According to her, the reason why the Ridgewood Reservoir's basins were classified as "Class C, High Hazard" was that in 2009 the standards were upgraded following Hurricane Irene. However, after the meeting I was informed by a lawyer from the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project that, in fact, standards were actually raised after the September 11th attacks out of fears of terrorists targeting dams. Ms. Lannon continued that the plan by engineers hired by the parks department is to prevent the dam from holding any water. She tried to assure us that the plan would not change the hydrology of the area. That assurance was contradicted later in the meeting when Alon Dominitz of the NYSDEC claimed that the basins held water because of the design's clay liner, which would be punctured during the construction (or deconstruction). I'm not an expert, but I'm guessing puncturing the clay liners would significantly alter the site's hydrology.

Venetia Lannon's brief presentation was followed by a 4 slide slideshow from Joelle Byrer, the parks department's Queens Capital Team Leader. She began with a description and overview of the three basins. One of the main points of contention would be the creation of an access road through the basin. This road would run directly through the wet meadow and wetland habitat at the south end of the basin. When the breaches are completed the road will continue to be used to remove invasive trees and other plant species and to allow their replacement with native plants. Ms. Byrer also presented three slides of the elevations and plans for each breach. I would have requested copies of those slides for this posting, but given past experience, was concerned it would take too long:

At the conclusion of this segment Thomas Panzone moderated a question and answer period. Here is a summary of the more important questions.

Steve Fiedler, the chair of the parks and conservation committee of Queens Community Board 5 wanted to know why they needed such a heavy handed approach, referencing the 11' x 15' tunnel into basin 3 and construction roadway within it. The response only reiterated that they needed to decommission the "dams" and that they planned to use the roadway afterwards to remove invasion plants.

Tom Dowd of the Earth Society Foundation expressed the frustration that many in the community have been feeling when he demanded of the NYSDEC why after 3 years they have still not responded to the application for wetlands protection. He followed with, "How much rain do they expect it would take to destabilize the reservoir?" Steven Zahn, NYSDEC Regional Natural Resources Supervisor, said he never acted on the wetlands protection application because they were understaffed and that Hurricane Sandy issues had made Ridgewood Reservoir a low priority. Regarding the second question, NYSDEC's Chief of Dam Safety, Alon Dominitz responded that he didn't know.

A second question by Steve Fiedler inquired exactly how many trees will be removed from basin 3. Parks representatives estimated 262 "invasive and non-viable trees". He later asked, "You plan on removing over 208 mature trees, how old will the replacement trees be?" Jonna Carmona-Graf of parks Capital Projects replied that they will be an average of 2 - 3 inches in diameter.

Annie Wilson, a lawyer with the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, asked the NYSDEC representatives, "Where does our application stand in the cue and how long will it take to follow up?" NYSDEC Regional Natural Resources Supervisor Steve Zahn replied that there are currently no other applications ahead of us, but that he didn't know how long it would take. Following up, Ms. Wilson asked if they can hold off on the breaching for the wetland mapping to be addressed. Jonna Carmona-Graf of the Department of Parks and Recreation replied, "No", although this question was asked to NYSDEC. Mr. Zahn did not respond to this question.

When asked if there were any future projects planned for the basin's interiors, Ms. Bryer responded that there is currently no funding for any development.

Representing the Highland Park/Ridgewood Reservoir Alliance, I pointed out that Round Mt. Ecological, LLC., contractors hired by parks, identified the south end of basin 3 as wetland habitat. My question was, "Did you not refer to that report before designing the roadway through the south end of the basin?" Jonna Carmona-Graf replied that they looked at the basin again and it's not really a wetland anymore. I should also point out that during a meeting at Oak Ridge in 2007 I asked Ms. Carmona-Graf when we could receive a copy of the report from Round Mt. Ecological, LLC. She replied that they needed to read through it first then decide what they'd be releasing to the public. Thankfully we were able to acquire a copy through another source.

Charles Monaco of the HPRRA asked, "Will the decommissioning design take into consideration the historic architectural features and artifacts of the basin?" Responses from both Ms. Byrer and Ms. Carmona-Graf were vague and seemed to indicate that they would not take them into account. What their answers did reveal, however, was that the construction process would also include building an earthen ramp into basin 1 to allow truck access. According to both the Round Mt. report and a report by NYS certified wetlands delineator Mickey Cohen, basin 1 contains the most sensitive habitat of the entire site.

Steve Zahn of the NYSDEC was asked why hasn't this decommissioning application caused his agency to push the wetlands protection application further along. His answer was appallingly unprofessional, as well as, non committal. He said, "Nothing led them to believe that the environment was in danger of imminent development." Followed by, "We will take a hard look at basin 3."

As an admitted virtual outsider attending his first meeting, Brooklyn Bird Club President Rob Bate tried to understand the dynamics of mistrust between the various factions. He explained that, what he inferred from all the published material, was the community didn't want active recreational facilities within any of the basins and that they didn't trust the parks department's commitment to that desire. His question to the parks department was, "Do we have your assurance that no active recreation facilities will ever be built within basin 3?" Ms. Carmona-Graf's response was very significant. She replied, "At this time we don't have any plans." With further questioning she would only say that they don't have any capital projects planned short term, but wouldn't commit to anything regarding protecting the basins in the future.

The whole issue of the Ridgewood Reservoir being designated by the NYSDEC as a Class C, High Hazard dam revolves around the agency's duty to protect the public from, in this case, torrents of uncontrolled water spilling through populated areas, destroying lives and property. To anybody familiar with the Ridgewood Reservoir, this concern seems utterly preposterous and the millions of dollars necessary to prevent that situation an incredible waste of taxpayer's money. The following question, which was likely on most people's minds was asked to Alon Dominitz, Chief of Dam Safety, NYSDEC. What scenario do you anticipate would create the catastrophic conditions that would cause the dams to fail and what is the probability of it occurring? Mr. Dominitz proceeded to describe the two most common types of failure mechanisms of earthen dams. One is "overtopping". Overtopping is self explanatory and involves more water ending up in a reservoir than it can contain. The second mechanism is called "piping". According to the website, piping is "internal erosion caused by seepage. Seepage often occurs around hydraulic structures, such as pipes and spillways; through animal burrows; around roots of woody vegetation; and through cracks in dams, dam appurtenances, and dam foundations." There is no permanent standing water in basins 1 and 3, and only 2 feet to 5 feet of water in basin 2 (nobody has actually done any water depth tests in basin 2), so concern for a catastrophe from piping action is absurd. He could not answer the question about the conditions that would cause either situations in the Ridgewood Reservoir basins nor the probability.

In an attempt to establish a historical context for the breaching of the Ridgewood Reservoir it was asked if there are there any Class D, Low Hazard dams within 25 miles of NYC and can they be visited. In addition, of these, how many were breached to become Class D? Alon Dominitz replied that he didn't know, but could probably provide that information. A follow-up question concerned who actually made the decision to classify the Ridgewood Reservoir as a Class C High Hazard dam? Was it the Commissioner of the NYSDEC? Mr. Dominitz replied that it was "a staff decision".

Based on information gleaned from the "FINAL Ridgewood Reservoir Permit" application, I asked, "What is the actual mechanism and purpose of the breaches? Is it to allow any built up water to flow from one basin to the other then into the storm drain on Vermont Place?" Nobody from the NYSDEC would volunteer an answer, but Ms. Carmona-Graf replied that "it is to create a breach". I tried to reword the question but she would only say that the purpose of the "breaches was to create breaches".

Annie Wilson from the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project continued her questioning about the wetland protection application that was submitted several years ago. She asked if we could revisit the classification process. Also, "What is the August deadline about?" According to the NYSDEC, not decommissioning the dam is a violation of the Environmental Conservation Statutes. When asked if we could we get a waiver, Mr. Zahn replied that there are extensions, but that the NYSDEC has never given one. He added, though, that he will take it into consideration.

Finally, Vincent Arcuri, Chair of Queens Community Board 5, asked if representatives of the NYSDEC and NYC Department of Park and Recreation would consider meeting with the community board to discuss an extension for the decommissioning process in order to allow for the application for wetlands protection and mapping to be completed. They responded that they would agree to meet with the community board.

It is unclear to everyone involved with trying to protect this natural gem on the Brooklyn/Queens border why the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is so set on destroying habitat rather than saving and enhancing it. At a press conference in 2004 when the NYC Department of Environmental Protection turned over the deed to parks, Mayor Bloomberg referred to it as an "untended wetland". The former mayor's PlaNYC 2030 called for a new wetlands initiative to expand and enhance existing state and federal wetlands protection. It seems as though that forward thinking concept has fallen by the wayside, at least with regard to the Ridgewood Reservoir's habitats.

This issue has attracted the attention of and assistance from a wide range of individuals, political leaders, community organizations and conservation groups. Throughout the past 7 years one question kept arising - Why would a city agency charged with protecting green spaces be trying so hard, and against the wishes of the people they are supposed to be serving, to devastate a nature habitat the likes of which New York City haven't seen in centuries? Many people think that, perhaps, a favor is owed to someone that will be repaid in the form of a lucrative contract. Others feel that it is merely the result of governmental mismanagement. There is even the theory that without this project some people in Capital Projects would be out of a job. Conjecture abounds, but I don't think we will ever know the truth behind this major screw up if it in fact does proceed as the parks department plans. The Ridgewood Reservoir would forever represent poor planning, mismanagement and lost opportunities in the annals of New York City government. This evolving urban hardwood forest, wetlands, wildlife magnet and the extraordinary educational opportunities it would have afforded New Yorkers will never happen again.

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1 comment:

Antid Oto said...

Excellent summary of a fairly depressing meeting. The only thing you neglected to mention was the Joelle Byrer's condescending smirk after every single audience question.