Changing Reservoir Dam Plan

DEC, Parks Eye Wetland Study, Avoiding Breach

The controversial plan to breach the Ridgewood Reservoir’s walls appears to be off the table, as the Parks Department requested that it be reclassified as a non-hazardous dam, according to a letter received by the Times Newsweekly on Tuesday, Sept. 2.

Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joseph Martens wrote in the letter, sent to Community Board 5 District Manger Gary Giordano and area elected officials–including City Council Members Antonio Reynoso and Elizabeth Crowley and Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan–that Parks department officials requested that the reservoir be considered a ClassA low-hazard dam; it is presently a Class D high-hazard structure.

The original Parks Department proposal to breach the decommissioned dam was met with some vocal opposition at several meetings meant to engage and explain the plan to the community.

“As a result of the meeting and subsequent technical exchange with DEC Dam Safety staff, Parks has requested a reclassification,” Martens said. “If reclassified, the Class A designation will allow Parks to maintain the reservoir as a dam, without necessitating breaching the structure and all the associated intrusions, such as access-road construction, tree removal and habitat disturbance.”

Rob Jett, a member of the Highland Park/Ridgewood Reservoir Alliance, a group formed in 2007 to oppose development of the land told the Times Newsweekly Wednesday that he feels the Parks Department has dragged it feet all along and said “it’s about time.”

“I think it’s interesting it took a lot of screaming and yelling from the community to protect the Ridgewood Reservoir from development,” he said. “In actuality anybody that goes over to it can see its not a high hazard dam.”

Martens said that the Parks Department will submit additional information required to justify the reclassification. He also addressed a concern that natural wetlands would be drained and destroyed if the reservoir were breached, concerns that were voiced at a DEC meeting held in Glendale on June 30.

“I think that it’s the greatest improvement to the local environment and economy that we could have,” Tom Dowd a local resident and member of the Highland Park/Ridgewood Reservoir Alliance said. “It means we can all come together for the best plan and we are now on the same page with the Parks Department.

Dowd believes the park and reservoir can become a resource for “ecotourism and tourism generally,” as well as local site for school kids on field trips to observe wildlife.

Martens wrote, “mapping the wetlands in the three basins of the Reservoir,” is being done.

“DEC Region 2 staff is in the process of developing a schedule to conduct the map amendment process with delineation work beginning as early as this fall,” he said. “This initial effort will include field work to identify where wetland conditions exist and to delineate these boundaries.”

Community opposition to breaching the reservoir focused on possible disturbances to migratory birds species that use it as a flyover, the draining of possible natural wetlands that have formed and the necessity of the work.

Others raised concerns that access roads and general construction inconveniences needed to breach the reservoir’s walls would disrupt the park and create an unsightly mess. Some, including Jett, also felt the work was unnecessary and a further waste of city resources.

“The argument behind them breaching the reservoir, depending on what reports you read, would cost six or seven million dollars,” Jett said.

Jett also believes any disturbance to wildlife would endanger a micro-wetland community that has thrived in the basins.

“It’s a really special habitat. It’s a really unique habitat that can hopefully become a protected wildlife area in New York City,” he said.

“Now we are going to have a protected area that will continue to evolve,” Dowd added.

The reservoir was used to hold drinking water until 1965. Its three basins are surrounded by Highland Park, and generally bordered by Cypress Avenue and the Jackie Robinson Parkway to the north, Highland Boulevard and Highland Park on the southern end and Vermont Place to the west.

Parks claimed the breach was necessary to officially decommission the dam and remove the danger of a possibly catastrophic flood should it overflow. But many opposed to the breach proposal claimed that only a rainfall of stupendous capacity could cause it to approach an overflow.

Because the reservoir reportedly only holds about 5′ of water, it is not a hazard to the community, Jett said.

“We’ve had several hurricanes and it hasn’t come close to overtopping,” he said.

Work to breach the reservoir would have meant the installation of two 4′-tall culverts on the northern edge between the basins and a large, 11′-tall and 14′-wide culvert on the southern end of the western basin next to Vermont Place, according to the Parks Department.

Reportedly, the proposal also called for a road to be built from the Vermont Place entrance across the western basin to install the precast culverts and allow access for construction vehicles

“We have been working on this for seven years,” Jett said. “And the community really came together on this.”

In addition to the wildlife and wetlands at the reservoir, Dowd felt the breach would “sacrifice the history of the site.”

“The Ridgewood Reservoir is really a great example of American engineering. We were opposed to the destruction because it has historical value,” he said.