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August 26 , 2006

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

August 26 , 2006

Great Sacandaga And Albany

How energy “privatization” caused flooding on the
waterfront this past July

* * * UPDATE * * * The lake continues to be kept overfilled, and the Batchellerville Bridge Action Committee tells the Daily Gazette what is the real problem here.

Thanks to the Great Sacandaga Lake the City of Albany did not experience ruinous floods earlier this summer. While many communities in the Northeast US were inundated by record heavy rains, Albany only had to deal with a few days of high water that covered part of the Corning Preserve bicycle path and soaked a few spots downtown.

And yet, even this mild flooding shouldn’t have happened. The administrators of this big artificial lake just inside the borders of Adirondack Park failed to do their job properly. Simple party political corruption was part of the problem, but the flooding that Albany experienced this summer can be blamed mostly on the State of New York’s policy of energy privatization.

Ninety three years ago, just before World War One, the Hudson River overflowed its banks. Albany’s waterfront disappeared under the River, bringing the City’s economy to a halt. Boaters paddled along Broadway even up the lower part of State Street. There are postcard photographs of the event still in circulation.

But the flood of 1913 was different from the many that came before. The polluted water of the Hudson infected the meager drinking water supply of Albany’s South End. Sewage festered in the streets, and soon cholera swept through the crowded poor neighborhoods. Sick and newly homeless people fled the South End, spreading infection across the City. The mortality statistics climbed.

Even the State Legislators, sitting in session high above the flood waters, were themselves and their families struggling with a disease that can hardly be called elegant. The cholera stricken body expels fluids any way it can until it is exhausted and dehydrated. But those legislators and their families were comparatively fortunate. In those days before antibiotics, the only hope for the stricken was to have constant attention in a clean environment, something few South End residents could afford.

Those lofty Legislators of 1913 vowed, Never Again. No more would they allow the Hudson to flood Albany. No more would a deadly microbe issue forth from the teeming South End and lay low the State government. In this way a single minded political will was born, a plan to bring the mighty Hudson under the control of the State.

The Sacandaga River meanders out of the Adirondacks and empties into the Hudson. Engineers determined that if they could control the flow of this unpredictable waterway, then they could prevent the upper Hudson River from flooding and keep the lower Hudson from getting too salty in dry years. All they had to do was dam the Sacandaga River and create a big lake. That way, they could control the volume of water that entered the Hudson by filling and emptying the big lake as needed.

In Fulton County, on the elbow side of a sharp bend in the Sacandaga River, is a large bowl between the hills that was scooped out by the glaciers. This fertile valley was the home to some 1500 people, farmers and small townspeople. State officials announced that this would be the site of new lake.

All the residents of the valley had to abandon their homes and livelihoods, while property owners had to give up their land by eminent domain. These property owners were well compensated monetarily for their losses as required by the US Constitution. In addition, the State moved many buildings and even entire villages to higher ground. To reduce debris, the remaining buildings in the valley were dismantled, and all of the trees were cut down.

Finally, in March of 1930, State officials closed the newly constructed dam at Conklingville in northern Saratoga County, and the valley filled with water. I am looking out over the lake at its widest part as I write this, a cloudy day with intermittent sunshine and a slight breeze. Great Sacandaga Lake is an enormous expanse of blue that takes about an hour and a half to cross in a kayak. It is 42 square miles and holds about 37 billion cubic feet of water at full capacity.

Today you can see places where farmer’s stone walls run down a hillside and into the lake. There is a spot in Mayfield where railroad tracks run into the water, a very unsettling thing to observe.

Not long after the lake was created, the shoreline became affordable vacation property for the working class. Plenty of funky cabins were built, such as the one The Wife and I are staying in. Fifteen years or so ago, a year round house with lake access could be had for 60 to 80 thousand dollars. Now anything with a mere twenty feet of lake access goes for at least several hundred thousand dollars. The funky working class cabins for rent are being torn down and replaced by fabulous summer mansions built for rich downstaters.

But no matter how rich you are, you can’t own the shoreline. All 129 miles of Great Sacandaga’s shore is owned by the State, or more specifically, the Hudson River Black River Regulating District, usually called by the last two words of its name. The Regulating District was created to supervise the lake, to fill it with water and to empty it, to police the water and keep it clean, to maintain the dams and to solve any problems that local communities might have regarding the lake. They also have the power to grant or deny access to the lake via a permit system.

The Regulating District, is organized along corporate lines with a board of directors and an executive director, all of whom are appointed by the Governor. It has almost dictatorial powers over the lake. For most of its existence the District behaved in a conciliatory manner, choosing merely to keep the lake operating the way it is supposed to.

That all changed in 1995 when George Pataki became Governor. Apparently he and his handlers did not understand that the Regulating District has an important job to do, one that required expertise. He viewed it as a low level patronage mill.

The Town of Northampton lies along the Western side of the lake and includes the picturesque lakeside village of Northville. Like so many other small, upstate New York communities, Northampton is controlled by a Republican Party machine as old and at least as corrupt as the Democratic machine in Albany. Northville can never quite pick itself out of economic doldrums, this lovely but run down village remains a monument to indifferent government.

Before his first term was up, Pataki had replaced most of the board of the Regulating District with local Republican Party hacks. The position of executive director became a sort of retirement job for the boss of the Northampton political machine. It would later come out that even although this character was occupying a full time salaried position, he barely set foot in the Regulating District offices and almost never attended meetings.

The first big problem started around the year 2000. The lake stayed full to capacity much too long, it never seemed to empty out. Normally it would fill to capacity in the spring when the snow melts and the rains fall, the lake water lapping up to the edge of grassy lawns and drowning shoreside trees and shrubs. Through summer the water normally would gradually recede, revealing ever more sandy rocky beach. By November, particularly in dry years, the lake often would look more like a desert surrounding a puddle of water. Tree stumps and building foundations would stick out of the sand and rocks.

It is important to empty out the lake especially in dry years to keep the Hudson River stable. Partly this is done to keep the River navigable from Albany northward. But just as importantly the flow of river water must strong enough to prevent ocean salt from creeping up the river.

This turned into a crisis several times during the late 1990s when salt crept upstream as far as Pataki’s home in Poughkeepsie, where it contaminated the drinking water. Yes, they drink the Hudson out of their taps, be warned if you visit. There was even some serious concern about salt making it as far as Albany, which would contaminate the drinking water of Bethlehem. Or, more precisely, the water drawn from “the aquifer under the Hudson” which is supposed to be clean of human contaminants such as the General Electric PCBs. But not salt.

So for most of the last seven years the lake has been filled to capacity and beyond for long and ruinous periods. The effect has been devastating to the local economy, which is heavily dependent upon the tourist trade. Private and commercial docks and other shore facilities are being destroyed or rendered useless well into the tourist season. Even worse, the shoreline is being ripped to shreds by the pounding of the unusually high waves, tossing about protective rocks and boulders like gravel.

This year the Regulating District allowed the lake to rise for some two to three feet above the top of the dam. This lasted for several days. Yes, you read that right. That definitely had not happened before. The lake reached vulnerable places along the shore that had never been covered with water. For two weeks in July the lake was closed to all boat traffic because of debris.

The State-run Northampton Beach Campground, a pillar of the local economy, was closed much of this summer due to flooding. Businesses that depend upon the Campground, such as Fay’s Take Out food stand and the brand new miniature golf course were almost completely devoid of customers. The marinas were forced to close, which in turn kept away the boaters.

It is generally considered a mystery why the Regulating District is hellbent on keeping the lake full. One would think, after all, that it would please their ultimate boss George Pataki if they were to release enough water to keep salt out of his own drinking water.

Most people assume that the people running the Regulating District are massively incompetent, but that does not explain this persistent mistake year after year. After all, the local Republican Party machine boys who packed the District positions were exposed and forced to resign a couple of years ago. Glen LaFave was brought in to head the District, he’s the Party’s troubleshooter who picks up State agencies after they’ve been destroyed by political looting and corruption. He’s generally considered a competent guy, but under his watch the problem of the overfilled lake has gotten worse.

Apparently Mr. LaFave has no choice but to screw up. There is a privately owned hydroelectric turbine at the Conklingville Dam. Until the late 1990s it was leased by the State to the heavily regulated power utility company. But then along came Pataki and his policy of energy “deregulation,” or as energy policy critic Jeff Beller calls it, “decriminalization.” The turbines were effectively “privatized,” that is, turned into profit generators.

The relationship between the Regulating district and the turbine owners had to be re-negotiated. So in March of 2000, the local Party hacks in charge of the lake made an agreement that they would effectively guarantee a flow of water to the turbines above a certain level. If they did not, then according to a thing called the Upper Hudson/Sacandaga River Offer of Settlement the turbine owners could take legal action if they are not satisfied with the flow of water over the dam.

So if in a dry year the lake empties out early in say, September, the district may very well have to fight an expensive lawsuit. Like any State agency, they are in no position to bleed money. Thus, the Regulating District is constantly in a panic to keep the lake overfilled, or else the goose poop will hit the outboard motor propellers.

Only corrupt idiots would agree to such a contract, and we can only hope that the local Party hacks who were in charge of the lake were well compensated for their efforts. This is energy privatization in action. In order to maintain the profits of an Enron style privateer the lakeside ecology is wrecked, the local economy gets hammered, and Albany’s waterfront gets flooded for no reason. We can see from this example that privatization is just another word for mismanagement.

Faced with the problem of compensating the hydroelectric privateers if the lake goes dry, the Regulating District came up with one helluva plan to raise revenue, presumably so that they could afford to fight lawsuits and empty out the lake again like they are supposed to. The only problem with their brilliant plan is that it has come close to starting riots.

Property owners around the lake have always had to obtain and hold a permit for lake access, for which they have traditionally paid a nominal fee. Without warning, the District haughtily decreed that from now on permit fees will be considered a tax on a sliding scale. The more access to the lake that you have the more you pay, in some cases more than a thousand percent more. And the lake access tax could go up any time at the whim of the district, which isn’t even required to hold public hearings. No honest citizen is legally allowed to challenge their dictates.

This outrageous tax would encourage access holders to subdivide their properties, thus fragmenting the lake shore and causing crowding, but the District didn’t seem to care about that. They have been more concerned with the angry lakeside residents who have organized themselves into resistance groups, particularly the militant Batchellorville Bridge Action Committee and the older and milder Sacandaga Lake Association.

The more the District has tried to dictate terms and new taxes, the more the people have fought back, confronting officials at every opportunity. The new regime has been holding public hearings to show how conciliatory they are. But they have effectively not backed down from their dictatorial attitude, and they have made it clear that they intend to impose these ridiculous and ruinous new taxes. For now these new lake access “Pataki Taxes” are on hold, but only as long as the people are willing to fight against taxation without representation.

At the cabin we have a bit of sandy beach this year. This being the month of August and dry, the water level of the lake has been dropping visibly. But the lake has not dropped as far as it should. In past years we liked to joke that the water has receded so much that we have to take a bus to go swimming. We haven’t used that joke in years.

Earlier this week the District was having another hearing “to air resident’s grievances” as they so patronizingly put it. At first they tried to hold the hearings on Wolf Road in Colonie, which is quite some distance from Sacandaga. Lake residents, angered at this shoddy maneuver, showed up en masse and practically shut down the DEC offices. Police had to be called to disperse the taxpayers.

Lately the hearings have been held at the more accessible Northville High School. At the last hearing more than 400 people showed up, and district officials had to listen to a series of righteously angry tirades well into the night.

I asked The Wife if she wanted to attend this one. She hemmed and hawed and then declined. “I’m on vacation from public hearings this week,” she said.

So we didn’t go. The next morning we checked the Northville High School to see if any District officials were swinging from the lampposts, but we didn’t notice any bodies. That’s too bad.

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