Aaron Mair points to a small, blue-and-white street sign directly across the street from his Putnam Road home: Entering aquifer recharge area.
It’s a message not lost on Mair, an outspoken Rotterdam environmentalist and member of the Sierra Club.
“This sign here is not an arbitrary sign,” he said. “In this area, the soil is very permeable and porous — it acts to recharge our drinking water.”
The bustling commercial center along West Campbell Road to the edge of the Mohawk River and northwest down the length of Rice Road is the primary feeder for the Great Flats Aquifer, a 14-mile-long, 45,000-acre watershed that serves as the sole source of Schenectady County’s drinking water. For decades, this area has been the focus of fierce debate between developers looking to build on a flatland area off Interstate 890 and citizen activists concerned that any construction near the fragile ecosystem could cause irreversible damage to the county’s precious resource.
Protecting the aquifer requires crafting acceptable land-use policies for the recharge zone and regulating activities in its most sensitive areas, said Rotterdam Supervisor Steve Tommasone, a member of the county’s Intermunicipal Watershed Board.
“We have to make sure whatever we do, we put in the proper restrictions,” he said. “We can’t just say ‘you can’t build anything’ because obviously there’s private ownership of property.”
Over the past two decades, property off West Campbell Road has transformed from rolling marshland to the town’s commercial epicenter. When Rotterdam Square mall broke ground in 1989, it was the first significant development along the edge of the recharge area.
Plans for the mall were hotly contested by residents who feared runoff from the roofs and parking lots would taint the aquifer. In response to these concerns, the county created the watershed board, a regulating agency comprised of elected officers from the five municipalities over the aquifer.
But despite nearly a decade of contention over the mall, Rotterdam officials approved the adjacent Schermerhorn Hollow Village shopping center on 35 acres over the recharge area. Two years later, they approved a Burger King and a 35,000-square-foot retail center called Hollywood Plaza.
Development interests along West Campbell Road then shifted from commercial to residential. In 2003, Amedore Homes received approval for a 52-unit condominium development called Putnam Woods; members of the Sierra Club protested the development when it broke ground two years later, claiming the deforestation of the property would deprive the recharge area of a natural filtration device.
Most recently, developers have started construction on Long Pond Village Apartments, a 192-unit cluster of apartments abutting the mall. The first phase of the project, three towering structures near an area of the aquifer considered most sensitive by town and county officials, is already up.
Runoff systems promised
In each case, developers pledged to create systems to collect runoff from impervious surfaces and mitigate the level of contaminants reaching the recharge area. When Wilmorite planned Rotterdam Square’s 800,000-square-foot foundation in the mid-’80s, they rerouted the Poentic Kill around the periphery of the property and funneled runoff from the massive parking lot into a retention pond at the northwest end of the property.
The pond filters runoff into the Poentic Kill and through several drainage pipes to wetlands. When the pond fills, mall workers collect water samples to be analyzed by a private laboratory for chemical pH and suspended solids, such as oil or salt.
Collecting water samples and monitoring the retention pond are the mall’s only maintenance obligations, according to representatives from the Macerich Company, the California-based retail developer that bought the property in 2005. When there’s no runoff in the pond, the company doesn’t do any sampling, said Hal Wainerdi, the mall’s operations manager.
“We report there is no overflow,” he said.
Results from the tests are sent to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Rick Georgeson, a regional spokesman for the DEC, said recent testing has shown no significant toxicity in samples from the mall.
“If there was a pattern and there was a number of violations, we would take action against them,” he said.
Similar retention pond systems were created for the two shopping plazas adjacent to the mall, but neither is required to test for contaminants, Georgeson said. Developers of Long Pond Village, on the other hand, must have a sampling and analysis program in place to ensure contaminants are being adequately purged from storm water before it filters into the ground water system, according to a set of 26 conditions of approval issued by the planning board in 2005.
Long Pond’s developers were also required to give the town a 10-acre conservation easement and to pay for a major upgrade to the town-operated sanitary sewage pumping station. The facility moves effluent from the mall, Putnam Village, Schermerhorn Hollow Village, Hollywood Plaza and Burger King to a storage basin near the Kmart parking lot; a pumping station moves sewage uphill to the town’s treatment plant near Burdek Street.
Rotterdam Public Works Director Michael Griesemer said the funding has allowed the town to install new motors and safety controls at the station as well as a stationary generator that will help limit the chances of a failure near the aquifer overlay zone. He said the station’s upgrades have created a system capable of serving all the development planned for West Campbell Road.
“Right now, that system is top notch,” he said.
Critics not convinced
Still, critics argue these systems don’t always work as planned. Mair said the failure of the town and watershed board to enforce their protective mandates has created incomplete mitigation systems that now threaten the health of the aquifer.
He said there is evidence that many of the systems built by Wilmorite nearly two decades ago are starting to fail. He said the dikes used to create the retention pond have ruptured at times and the redirected Poentic Kill is now choked with sediment.
Mair said road salt used each winter in developments like the mall, its adjacent commercial plazas and Putnam Woods and on area thoroughfares is slowly leeching into the aquifer, creating water that has gotten noticeably harder in nearby homes. If something isn’t changed, he believes the water quality will suffer.
“It’s not a question of if it will happen to our water supply,” he said, “It’s a matter of when.”
Mair faulted the watershed board for not ensuring the systems built by developers are properly constructed and maintained. Without enforcement officers watching out for violations, he said the board instead relies on citizen activists, who lack the tools needed to adequately protect the resource.
And if the aquifer is tainted by development, Mair said fixing it won’t come cheap. Building a water treatment plant would place an unprecedented financial burden on the county that would far outweigh any economic benefits from further development.
But county groundwater planner Jason Pelton said the quality of water has remained the same through West Campbell Road’s development because of the watershed board’s intense project scrutiny.
“We haven’t seen any degradation of ground water,” he said. “We have some of the highest quality water in the state.”
Pelton said the watershed board frequently tests the water and hasn’t seen any noticeable changes. In addition, he said, the board has become increasingly attentive to complaints lodged by town officials or residents.
“People don’t understand that there are methods in place to protect the aquifer,” he said. “We’re a pretty active board.”
Enforcement and regulation over the aquifer have markedly increased over the last four years, said Ray Gillen, a commissioner with the watershed board. He said the board now aggressively vets any developments in the recharge zone to ensure the projects don’t pose a threat to Schenectady’s drinking water supply.
“We’ve been very aggressive in our reviews,” he said. “It’s sometimes caused some issues, but we’re not backing down.”
For example, Gillen said, the Long Pond project was put through years of extensive review by the board before it was given a go-ahead. He said the same scrutiny is being taken with recent plans to develop the former Flying W and Main Florist properties off Campbell Road; both projects have been held back because they didn’t comply with the regulations laid out by the board.
Gillen said the watershed board has also taken a proactive stance toward identifying violators and fining them for activities that could pose a threat to the aquifer. In 2006, the board cooperated with the county Department of Health to fine Michael Marotta, a Rotterdam Junction property owner who operated an illegal junkyard over the aquifer recharge area of Route 5S in Pattersonville.
“[The aquifer] is one of the great assets of the county,” he said. “Not enough was done in the past, but now we feel there’s a good review process in place.”
Local leaders and county officials are lobbying for stronger state public health laws to govern land use over the aquifer. Last year, state Sen. Hugh Farley sponsored state legislation to toughen penalties for violations of rules relating to possible contamination of water supplies.
The legislation would increase fines from $200 per violation to up to $1,000 per day. Farley said the bill is now on its third reading in the senate and has strong bipartisan support.
Tommasone said the new law would provide municipalities with an added tool to keep developers and landowners in check. He said continued study and regulation of the aquifer’s sensitive zones, coupled with steep penalties for those who break watershed laws, will help keep the aquifer a viable drinking source for years to come.