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N.Y. City reservoir flow irks downstream towns

Tensions in small towns downstream from New York City's upstate Ashokan Reservoir have flared over water releases that critics say are so muddy, it makes a local creek look like chocolate milk.

The city has released water into the Lower Esopus Creek when the reservoir is particularly clouded with silt to help protect a water supply that serves 9 million people to the south. But many residents around the Esopus say the surges are killing fish, devaluing their property and ruining the creek.

Plans being reviewed by state regulators to manage the releases have done little to ease concerns. "It's eroded my backyard, I've lost trees, it's made the attractiveness of living on a pristine trout stream into looking at mud," said Bob Illjes, who lives along the creek in Hurley. "It's polluted the stream bass, trout, perch and sunnies -- they aren't there anymore."

New York City officials who run the vast upstate reservoir system say they are trying to balance the needs of people downstate who drink the water and of the upstate watershed residents. They note that a draft order being reviewed by the state also commits the city to help with flood control, which is a particular concern in a region ravaged last year by Tropical Storm Irene.

"We're focused on trying to do things that are helpful to the community to the maximum extent possible," said Paul Rush, deputy commissioner of the city Department of Environmental Protection.

The water flow flap is the latest in a series of issues between the mostly tiny towns dotting the Catskill area and the big city that created the water supply system generations ago. In recent decades, New York City has taken extraordinary steps to avoid having to spend billions of dollars on a water filtration plant, striking a deal with local towns to limit development and purchasing tens of thousands of acres of land skirting the reservoirs.

The resulting land-use constraints have fed some resentment. When Ulster County Executive Mike Hein this year complained that the city DEP acts like an "occupying nation," he was echoing a common sentiment.

Concerns rose in 2010 after storms made the reservoir water especially turbid and the DEP made some releases into the Lower Esopus, which flows into the Hudson River. The state Department of Environmental Conservation sought a $2.6 million fine against the city, but the state and the city have since reached tentative agreements aimed at solving the issue.

Under a draft consent order last month, the city would pay a civil penalty of up to $1.55 million, with $950,000 of that pledged to projects that would benefit the creek. The city also would commit $750,000 to projects to reduce turbidity on the Upper Esopus, which feeds the Ashokan, as part of larger goal to reduce the use of alum to keep the water clear.

City officials also would have to be ready to capture seasonal runoffs in the reservoir to help with flood control.