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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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.
Prior Post *
* * Next Post
This site maintained by Lynne
Jackson of Jackson's