Good news: The Mohawk Valley Water Authority’s attempt to double the amount of water it withdraws from West Canada Creek is over, at least for now.
State Supreme Court Justice Samuel D. Hester ruled the water authority could continue to take the amount of water that it has since the early 20th century, but not more.
At present, an amount equivalent to about 35 cubic feet per second is withdrawn from Hinckley Lake, the impoundment on the West Canada, for about 130,000 customers in and around the city of Utica. The water authority wanted to more than double its share, to 75 cfs, in order to run water lines out of the West Canada’s watershed to the Verona area, near the Turning Stone casino.
Hats off to Judge Hester for slapping down the water grab. The West Canada is one of the state’s top trout streams — a valuable natural resource, a treasured fishing destination for anglers in New York and surrounding states and an important part of the quality of life for many residents of central New York.
Specifically, the judge ruled that a 1917 agreement requires the water authority to add water to the West Canada to compensate for what it wants to withdraw. But the authority can’t do that, having torn down the dam on its own reservoir on a West Canada tributary for safety reasons back in 2002.
It’s no sin to want to expand the tax base and bring more jobs to the Utica-Rome area. I’ve lived there, and I know economic development is important.
But the potential for development is not a good enough reason to damage an irreplaceable natural resource — and make no mistake: to permanently reduce a stream’s flow is to damage it. And think of the precedent the water grab would set. What if some water-intensive manufacturer offers to come to the area, offering jobs and a fat payment in lieu of taxes in exchange for another 50 cfs? Where does it end?
I’m no hydrologist, but an alternative suggested by some seems to make sense: Get the water from Rome, rather than Utica. Rome is closer to Verona, and its water supply is the East Branch of Fish Creek, which drains the Tug Hill Plateau, which gets more than 200 inches of snow in a typical winter.
An even better idea, in my view, is to reject suburban sprawl and concentrate development near the region’s urban centers, where water lines already exist.
The fight is probably not over. The water authority may appeal Hester’s ruling. Its director also told the Utica Observer-Dispatch that the ruling “clears the way for the state” to step in and demand the water authority get what it wants. The judge did say in his ruling that addressing the demand for the West Canada’s water “can best be accomplished by the actions of the legislative and executive branches of the government of the State of New York.”
And so we need to count on the Legislature and the Department of Environmental Conservation to defend the West Canada Creek — and for that matter, the East Branch of Fish Creek, too — from exploitation by people who look at a great trout stream and see nothing more than a way to make a few bucks.
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