Touring the newly reconfigured 19th Congressional District after taking office in January, U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson noticed widespread dissatisfaction on one specific issue: water.
The new district is home to most of New York City’s massive watershed, responsible for pumping 1.2 billion gallons of high-quality drinking water into the city each day.
“Following tropical storms Irene and Lee,” said Stephanie Valle, a spokeswoman for the congressman, “a lot of upstate residents felt the city’s need for water was filled at their expense.”
Some reservoirs were kept at dangerously high levels during flooding, she said, and in certain areas post-flood remediation efforts were hampered by regulations designed to keep the city’s water clean.
Gibson hopes to find a solution though public comment. On Tuesday the Kinderhook Republican announced the formation of a new Watershed Advisory Group.
The effort is still in its infancy, but the plan is pretty straightforward: Local government officials, scientists and interested residents from Schoharie, Delaware, Greene and associated counties will gather for scheduled events to discuss watershed issues.
“Right now the congressman is just looking for basic input on what the issues are,” Valle said. She does, however, expect to hear a lot about water levels in the watershed’s 19 reservoirs.
“The higher the level of a reservoir,” she noted, “the more water the city has access to, and the more dangerous a flood situation is for people who live on the watershed.”
Future meetings will discuss lowering reservoir levels before heavy rains. There will also likely be talks about easing watershed regulations to expedite post-flood creek projects.
The formation of the advisory group, according to Schoharie County Soil and Water Stream Program Manager Peter Nichols, is part of a large shift in watershed management.
“Before Irene, watershed initiatives focused on water quality,” he said. “Now there’s a shift toward flood preparedness and remediation.”
Schoharie County, he noted, is home to 38 square miles of the city watershed and the Schoharie Reservoir, known in recent years for controversy over deterioration of the Gilboa Dam and repairs to it.
Because the city doesn’t filter its water, Nichols said, the DEC keeps tight regulations on pollution levels. Rather than talking about easing those regulations to promote remediation projects, he suggested large-scale education.
“We need more creek education,” he said. “There needs to be some science to the projects. We can’t just dig the channel deeper.”
Other watershed experts in other counties may disagree. City officials may insist reservoir levels stay high to provide enough water. Whatever happens in future discussions, Nichols said the results will be positive.
“Whenever you get stakeholders, scientists and politicians in one room to talk,” he said, “that’s a good thing.”
He also said that with climate change prompting more heavy rainfall than ever, a cohesive plan needs to be drafted. “We still have residents in Schoharie County that are traumatized by the flooding in 2011,” he said.
Thus far nothing specific has been scheduled. Valle said Gibson hopes to schedule the first meetings in the next few months.
“From Gibson’s perspective it’s about finding the balance,” she said. “The city needs to get clean water, but it can’t be done at the expense of upstate communities.”
Those interested in taking part can find a form at gibson.house.gov/watershed/.