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

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Village Voice Article

The following piece was just published in the "Village Voice":


Saving Queens’ Secret Wetlands
by Ryan Goldberg
June 27, 2017

Asters grow around the old reservoir. courtesy Matt Malina / NYCH20

One early-March afternoon in 2007, Rob Jett climbed through a hole in a chain-link fence and thought he had entered a lost world.

He and two fellow bird-watchers rappelled into a dense swamp forest of birch and sweetgum, mosses and lichens. They were standing in ankle-deep water in the west basin of the 160-year-old Ridgewood Reservoir, the last vestige of Brooklyn’s old waterworks, smack on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. Inside this wilderness, the sounds of the city faded away above the reservoir’s stone levees.

“We were like, ‘Holy shit,’ ” Jett told the Voice.

Jett, 61, had never seen a place like it, even though he had grown up only two miles away and for years had been writing about bird-watching throughout the city.

The reservoir was once important to the growth of Brooklyn as it became one of the largest cities in the country. Steam engines pumped the water into the three reservoir basins and then gravity carried it downhill as it traveled under city streets, into people’s homes.

But the reservoir was drained and abandoned in 1989, and within a single generation nature had reclaimed the basins and transformed them into a swamp-forest mix unlike any in the city.

Jett and his companions — married couple Steve Nanz and Heidi Steiner — crawled underneath vines straddling the path between the west and central basins.

They saw signs of paintball matches and tire tracks from dirt bikes and ATVs. All the lampposts were smashed. They daydreamed about the possibilities for the fifty-acre site: boardwalks through two of the basins and a nature center inside one of the two derelict redbrick gatehouses.

Their ideas conjured something similar to the High Line project, which was then being designed: a piece of obsolete urban infrastructure integrated with nature.

Until Wednesday, June 21, the city had never held the same view as the bird-watchers. Originally, the parks department, which acquired the reservoir from the city’s Department of Environmental Protection in 2004, presented $50 million plans that would have bulldozed it for athletic fields. The reservoir remains standing because of a small group of naturalists, preservationists, and community activists who rallied to defend it as a nature preserve and historic jewel.

Ridgewood Reservoir circa 1887. George Brainerd

At the community meeting in Glendale last Wednesday, Queens parks commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski confirmed that Parks would no longer push for active recreation at the reservoir. The roughly sixty attendees offered proposals for the site that were similar to those first imaginings — limited trails inside the outer basins, a nature center, scenic overlooks, removal of invasive flora. Parks’ budget is $9 million.

To the reservoir’s supporters, the timing was still worrisome: the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) still hasn’t labeled the reservoir a wetlands. By law, such a designation would forever protect it from development. So, too, would landmark status. In March, the nonprofit NYC H2O, applied for its inclusion on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

At the meeting, Owen Wells, Parks’ director of environmental review, presented a plan for labeling the site a Critical Environmental Area — a nonregulatory policy statement without the muscle of the state wetlands label.

Nanz pointed out that a map of the reservoir did not include the L-shaped west basin, which is as large as the other two together and has long been a focus of their efforts, as part of the wetlands. Parks once wanted to build sports fields over it, and an NYSDEC regional director previously told Nanz that it would never be protected as a wetlands.

At least five reports going back to 2005, including one from Parks’ own Natural Resources Group and another from its ecological consultants, have provided evidence of wetlands in all three basins. Nanz worried that the Critical Environmental Area tag could be used as cover for development of the west basin if it was not included.

In one impassioned exchange with Wells, Ridgewood resident Tom Dowd, 74, shouted, “Will you put it on the map?” regarding the possible wetlands in the west basin.

“We will update the map to resolve this concern,” Wells answered.

In 2010, Nanz and others filed an application for wetlands designation with NYSDEC. Two weeks ago, its regional supervisor finally conducted a field survey at the reservoir, and will visit again in July before releasing findings in the fall.

“Seven years is a long time to act on a permit application,” said New York environmental lawyer Edan Rotenberg. “Seven years is effectively ignoring it.”

This saga with the parks department began with an experimental dance project. In 2007, choreographer and performer Jennifer Monson, who had been studying wildlife migration for years, organized a yearlong residency at what she called “a beautiful fairytale forest in the middle of the city.”

As part of her research, Monson asked the Brooklyn Bird Club to lead a bird survey. Jett, Nanz, and Steiner volunteered first. During periodic visits, they found almost forty different species using it as a breeding ground, and more than twice that many stopping there on their migration along the Atlantic Flyway.

As new visitors came to the reservoir for Monson’s performances, the Bloomberg administration, seemingly intent on leveling the forests there for sports fields even as it pledged to plant one million trees in the city, named it one of eight “destination parks.”

Recognizing the reservoir’s endangered state, those who wanted to see it remain a wildlife refuge created the Highland Park/Ridgewood Reservoir Alliance.

Because of the reservoir’s inaccessibility — the Jackie Robinson Parkway and several cemeteries cut it off from nearby Bushwick and Ridgewood — “the parks department anticipated going in there and getting shovels in the ground quickly,” Steiner said. “We did everything we could to stop them.”

They led field trips and bird walks for residents and politicians. In late June of 2008, then-comptroller William C. Thompson halted the plan because of financial and environmental concerns. Months later, the economic crash quartered the project’s budget, leaving only enough for renovations to the walkways and lighting.

The community groups declared victory. Then one evening in the fall of 2013, Glendale resident Gary Comorau, president of the alliance, attended a local community board meeting. The parks department was giving a presentation about remediating flooding at the reservoir. The city was going to breach the levees in three places, cut down nearly 500 trees, and build roads through the west basin. In short, destroy it — at a cost of at least $6 million.

“My mouth dropped open,” Comorau said.

State dam-safety regulations still classified it as a high-hazard dam, even though it never held water. Comorau learned that the annual rainfall in Ridgewood is less than forty inches. But even 10 feet of rain wouldn’t fill the reservoir.

Comorau mobilized his group. After months without answers, he hired Rotenberg, the environmental lawyer. As Rotenberg called local and state officials, making the point that there was no flood risk, Comorau and his associates convinced every elected official in the district, from the City Council to Congress, to write Governor Andrew Cuomo about their concerns.

In September 2014, NYSDEC Commissioner Joseph Martens said Parks had requested a reclassification of the reservoir as a low-hazard dam. (It was only formalized two months ago.) In a letter to politicians, Martens added that his staff would begin wetlands delineation of the reservoir “as early as this fall.”

Three years later, its protectors are still waiting.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Jett said after the meeting on the 21st. “For ten years we’ve been saying: landmark and wetlands. Then they won’t ever be able to destroy it.”


Send us an email

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Critical Environmental Area Designation Concerns

Dear Concerned Friends of Ridgewood Reservoir,

As many of you may know, the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation (DoPR) is hosting two back-to-back meetings on June 21 at 6pm and 7pm at St. Pancras School on 68-20 Myrtle Ave:

• 6pm - Public Hearing by DoPR to accept comments on the proposed designation of the Ridgewood Reservoir as a Critical Environmental Area (CEA).
• 7pm - Unveiling of the new DoPR development plan for Ridgewood Reservoir.

It is my understanding that the CEA, while offering no direct benefits or protections, would establish policy which would affect future decisions and additionally this designation might also be an aid to gaining future funding. However, I'm not sure it should be supported in its current form. The maps provided in the application must be amended to show the wetland in Basin 3, west basin. Also, the special importance of that wetland must be clearly articulated. Without these edits, I can imagine the CEA actually serving as evidence supporting the notion that development of Basin 3 would cause no significant environmental damage.

I would remind one and all that DoPR has never planned to negatively impact the natural habitats of Basins 1 or 2, that this fight has always been about their intentions for the approximate 26 acres which is Basin 3, an area nearly equal in size to Basins 1 and 2 combined. Although the CEA application mentions findings in Basin 3 by the Round Mountain Ecological survey and two DoPR Natural Resources Group studies indicating the existence of wetland, those findings are directly contradicted by the map included in the CEA which shows no wetland in Basin 3 while wetland habitat is clearly marked in Basins 1 and 2. DoPR mentions that three plant species, listed as Threatened or Endangered in New York State, have been observed in Ridgewood Reservoir. Omitted is the fact that those three species were found in Basin 3. One of those species was found only in Basin 3. Two of the species are wetland species one of which being an obligate wetland species. Clearly, Basin 3 contains a highly treasured freshwater wetland which DoPR's planNYC and NYSDEC ECL Article 24 were created to protect.

If this application is to be submitted prior to long awaited wetland mapping from the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), DoPR could use the map produced by certified wetland delineator, Mickey Cohen, in his 2009 wetland delineation of Ridgewood Reservoir. That map, which is simply a mark up of DoPR's own geodetic survey map, would be far more accurate. But DoPR should be urged to push NYSDEC for wetland mapping. For years we have made several request including a 2013 formal request and in a 2014 response to Congresswoman Velazquez et al., NYSDEC Commissioner Martens promised field work would start in the fall of that same year. Unless something has happened in the last two weeks, no one from NYSDEC has done soil samples, a requirement for wetland mapping. I should note that Kenneth Scarlatelli, the current NYSDEC Regional Natural Resources Supervisor, has indicated NYSDEC would be holding a hearing in July in which it’s finding would be made public and that the required soil samples would be done by then. I find Mr. Scarlatelli refreshingly forthright and have no reason to doubt him, despite NYSDEC’s past history of delays.

In the community listening session hosted by NYCH2O, Queens Borough Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski, announced the welcome news that DoPR has officially taken the plan for building active sports facilities off the table. However, when pressed for details or even a general understanding of what the new plan would be, we were told that we would have to wait until the June 21 meeting.

I urge everyone who can make it, to attend these extremely important meetings. We must push DoPR to correct the contradictions and omissions in the CEA application. We must push NYSDEC to conduct the science required by its own rules. In the last year there have been numerous community meetings hosted by NYCH2O in which the public has been united in seeing Ridgewood Reservoir developed as an historic site and wildlife refuge. Please join us in getting the job done.

Stephen R. Nanz

Send us an email

Former Mayor Bloomberg's Wetlands Initiative

Wetlands mapping of the Ridgewood Reservoir by the NYS Department of Environment Conservation has been one of the community's major objectives for 10 years. The NYSDEC, for unknown reasons, has been dragging their feet on this. Below is a document from 2009 by then Mayor Bloomberg. It covers some very important issues, many of the same arguments we've been using for years. From the summary page:

Wetlands are an important component of the City’s vision for a greener, greater future set out in PlaNYC. Wetlands help improve water quality and control floods by trapping pollutants, capturing stormwater runoff, sequestering carbon dioxide, moderating storm surges, providing habitat for local and migratory birds, fish and other wildlife, and creating a unique opportunity for New Yorkers to observe wildlife and to undertake other quiet, contemplative recreation. For those reasons, the City owns and manages thousands of acres of wetlands as open space, and the National Park Service controls extensive tracts of wetlands in and around Jamaica Bay and Staten Island. Other wetlands within the city are protected by Federal and New York State regulations, but the scope and vigor of those protections is uncertain.

Send us an email

Monday, June 19, 2017

A Vision for the Reservoir

NYC H2O, working with Raft Landscape, has developed an interesting vision for the future of the reservoir. Check it out at this link. I recommended browsing some of their other projects on the linked website.

Send us an email