A local college professor who warns of threats to the Mohawk River said the Town of Colonie should give more thought to maintaining Stony Creek Reservoir in Vischer Ferry, an obsolete backup water source.
The town is accepting requests for proposals for Stony Creek Reservoir, the dam and surrounding land, for a minimum bid of $5.1 million. Colonie is accepting bids through Aug. 6.
Town officials want to let go of the reservoir because it hasn’t been used for 17 years.
Colonie’s primary raw water source is the Mohawk River.
The town is in the midst of a 10-year interconnect agreement to share treated water with Albany in the case of an emergency here.
John Garver, a professor of geology at Union College in Schenectady, studies natural disasters and he said he tells students to expect the unexpected.
The Latham Water District, he said, should revisit its reliance on the Mohawk River for the town’s raw water needs, given the potential complexities and threats to rivers.
Latham Water District includes 82,000 town residents who use about 10 million gallons per day of water.
Garver said the district would wish it had held onto Stony Creek Reservoir if something catastrophic were to happen to the Mohawk River.
The professor published an extensive piece about the matter last week. He suggested the Mohawk River is susceptible to unintentional releases of sewage from leaky pipes, salt from roads, or permitted industrial discharges into the river.
Potential catastrophes include derailment of trains with hazardous materials or an industrial accident that releases chemicals into the river.
In the early 1990s, Garver noted, untreated glycol that was used to de-ice airplanes at the Albany International Airport flowed down Shaker Creek into the Mohawk, where it contaminated the raw water supply for Colonie.
For a time, Colonie stopped drawing from the Mohawk and relied on raw water from wells and Stony Creek Reservoir. The problem was remediated after the airport installed a system to collect and process glycol.
“If I were running a municipal water supply,” Garver said, “I’d want to have a backup in case something happens to the river.”
Reached Thursday, Colonie Superintendent John Frazer said he hadn’t read Garver’s piece.
But Frazer suggested there’s a sufficient backup program in place.
“That’s why we constructed the emergency interconnects with the city of Albany, so that we can deliver finished [filtered, purified and chlorinated] water to the distribution system in the event of an emergency at the treatment plant, or one of our pump stations over the river,” Frazer said.
Stony Creek Reservoir hasn’t been used for backup water since 2004. Built in the early 1950s, it was never a primary source of water.
Meantime, it costs about $224,000 a year to maintain Stony Creek Reservoir’s dam system, Frazer said.
Because it’s a Latham Water District asset, money earned from the sale of the property is to stay within the Latham Water District. It can be used for other projects within the district, such as water main replacements and improvements to facilities at the water treatment plant, Frazer said.
Thus far, a conservation organization, the Open Space Institute, in concert with the town of Clifton Park, is the only entity to make an inquiry about the asset, according to Frazer.
“They’ve made some informational requests in writing. They’re doing their due diligence to verify the condition of the dam, and other facilities that may be on the property,” Frazer said.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation allows the district to draw 31.5 million gallons per day from the Mohawk.
A renovation to a Mohawk View Water Treatment Plant allows up to 30 million gallons per day to be pumped from the river.
The district’s average use is 10 million gallons per day, with a max use last year of more than 23 million gallons per day, Frazer has said.
Garver said he’s not necessarily against the sale of the reservoir.
The professor said he concurs with the local group, Save Colonie, which has questioned the sale because of what it said was a lack of transparency to be able to make an informed decision of whether the sale is worthwhile.
Garver said Schenectady’s municipal water, by comparison, is a well field in what’s called the Great Flats Aquifer.
He described that asset as “solid, protected, and basically uninterruptible — it’s one of the most remarkable water sources for a municipality in the Capital District.”
But in terms of the Mohawk?
“Holy cow, there’s a lot of possible things that can happen,” he remarked.
Suggesting that the interconnect between the Latham Water District and the Albany water board essentially forced the sale of Stony Creek Reservoir, Garver points out that interconnects are a benefit to the Capital District, because they ensure a continuous supply of finished water for everyone in the district.
But they can also be expensive – more than $5,000 a day to buy water out of Albany. During a month-long crisis, the interconnect could cost Colonie about $235,000, Garver estimated.
Interconnects are widely used throughout the Capital District.
“But if you have the ability to be independent, that’s a good thing to have,” Garver said.
Susan Weber, founding member of Save Colonie, said the group wants the town to analyze the costs of upgrading and maintaining the reservoir, compared to the cost of using the Albany interconnect agreement.