What’s At Stake

How is the Catskills Park Protected?

The Catskills Forest Preserve is protected as “forever wild” by Article XIV of the New York State Constitution. New York’s Forest Preserve lands range from remote streams in the backcountry to maintained campgrounds, and have exceptional scenic, recreational, and ecological value. The lands are so valuable they are enshrined in the New York State constitution:

The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.

Article XIV, New York State Constitution

Priceless, Unbroken Wilderness

One of several vulnerable bird species: Cerulean Warbler, by MDF

The Catskill Forest Preserve has been designated by the Audubon society as an ‘Important Bird Area’. The Audubon society’s report on the area explains that the nearby Catskill peaks support “a distinctive sub-alpine bird community including breeding Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, Swainson’s Thrushes, Hermit Thrushes, Magnolia Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, White-throated Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos.”

Yellow-throated Vireo, by Andrew Weitzel

The US Geological Survey has designated the Catskills Park State Forest Preserve as Status 2 lands. According to the Dept. of Energy’s own Hydropower Vision, “areas with formal protections designated as Status 1 or 2 under the USGS Gap Analysis Program are avoided for development.” We agree.

The United States Geological Survey’s report recommends avoiding the Catskills Forest for hydropower development

You can view a map of Status 1 and Status 2 lands here. The exact location in Premium Energy’s proposal for the Wittenberg dam is designated as status 2 lands: “managed for biodiversity – disturbance events suppressed.”

The USGS also recommends avoiding disturbance of rivers listed in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s National Rivers Inventory based on their value. The Esopus river has been listed as “Outstandingly Remarkable Value: Fish, Recreational, Scenic”. The pumped storage project would disrupt flow into the Esopus and the output from the generators would flow into and intermix with the Esopus’ terminus.

Water: NYC’s Greatest Asset

The city’s water system could well be its single most important capital asset — or at least on par with the subway system,”

– Eric A. Goldstein, senior lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

NYTimes – A Billion-Dollar Investment in New York’s Water

New York City applied to be an intervenor in Premium Energy’s proposal because the project seeks to empty (and pump from) the west basin of the Ashokan reservoir, a process that has huge implications for the quality of water for 9 million New Yorkers.

The Ashokan Reservoir provides close to 40 percent of New York City’s drinking water. The twin reservoirs contain 128 billion gallons of water at full capacity, and collects rainwater and snowmelt from a 255-square-mile watershed that includes part of 11 towns in Ulster, Greene and Delaware counties. That water then travels 92 miles down the Catskill Aqueduct and flows into the NYC taps unfiltered.

The forever-wild forests are unsuitable for an industrial powerplant and reservoir, but pumped storage also introduces unique stresses to an area as fragile as the Catskills.

Open Loop Pumped Storage Downsides

So what is Pumped Storage? It’s essentially a massive battery, where water flowing from high elevation to low elevation provides energy in times of need, and water is pumped from low elevation to high elevation when electricity prices are low. In a controlled system where you have two bodies of water, this can be one useful way to store surplus energy. But throwing a pumped storage plant into fragile ecosystems, valuable watersheds, and preserved forests is not wise.

  • It’s expensive. A 2013 Department of Energy study found that “Even over a wide range of possible energy futures, up to 2020, no energy future was found to bring quantifiable revenues sufficient to cover estimated costs of [pumped storage] plant construction.”
  • Pumped Storage is a net consumer of energy: pumping water up takes more power than it can make going back down.
  • It is a form of “energy arbitrage” spending cheap power to make expensive power.
  • Pumped Storage can “wreak havoc on the ecologically rich
    areas where terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems overlap
    .” Why? When a reservoir’s depth is constantly changing, any plants or animals who find themselves relying on that water are under stress. “You may have an artificial flood for four hours, and then a drought for 20 hours, and then another artificial flood,” says Peter Bosshard, the interim executive director for International Rivers, an environmental advocacy based in Berkeley, California, said in a CSmonitor article on hydropower.
  • While hydropower reduces greenhouse gases from fossil fuels, reservoirs themselves produce
    methane, a particularly harmful greenhouse gas. “Hydropower Vision” acknowledges that there remains
    a lot of research to be done on the issue. Read this Environmental Defense Fund study on the issue and this post by the Waterkeeper Alliance.

Sources: Electric Power Research Institute: “Quantifying the Value of Hydropower in the Electric Grid”;
YaleE360, “For Storing Electricity, Utilities are Turning to Pumped Storage”; DoE HVR

Closed vs Open Loop

A closed loop pump storage reservoir. Not what is being proposed.

Hydro batteries built in closed loop systems have far fewer downsides than open loop systems. A closed loop pumped storage system is typically sited in man-made ponds and lakes created by mining activity, where an upper and lower body of water create the hydraulic storage system. In this system, water flows between two man made holding pools without disturbing open water systems or rivers.

The proposed project by Premium Energy does not represent a closed loop system, but an ‘add-on’ or ‘open loop’ system where outflow from the new proposed 216 acre reservoir raises and lowers an open system of protected water that 9 million New Yorkers depend on for their water (The Ashokan Reservoir). This plan has detrimental affects on both the quality of the water in the west basin of the Ashokan, but also the groundwater near the proposed dam, which cuts off a trout spawning stream, dams a valley, and impacts drilled wells downstream. A study by the Department of Energy covers this impact on both aquatic resources and groundwater:

In particular, the impacts to aquatic resources are typically lower for closed-loop projects than for open-loop, as closed-loop projects are not continuously connected to any naturally-flowing body of water. This avoids the movement of water between reservoir and free-flowing water that drives many impacts of open-loop projects. For closed-loop projects, the impacts on aquatic resources are primarily related to the initial withdrawal of surface water for reservoir fill, which could reduce the availability of surface water for other uses.

…Closed-loop projects using groundwater as the source for initial filling of their reservoirs and replacing evaporative and seepage losses may impact groundwater quality due to the effects on groundwater circulation patterns and chemistry. Impacts to groundwater quantity resulting from the large quantities of water necessary for reservoir fill and refill could reduce the availability of groundwater for other uses.

There is one specific circumstance in which the impacts of constructing the new upper reservoir and power generation facilities could be lower than those of constructing a new closed-loop project: open-loop projects where the lower reservoir was already constructed for other purposes and an upper reservoir is added later for PSH operations (i.e., an “add-on” project). However, the impacts of project operations would still likely be higher than for closed-loop because the add-on project’s lower reservoir is still continuously connected to and affects a naturally flowing water feature.

A Comparison of the Environmental Effects of Open-Loop and Closed-Loop Pumped Storage Hydropower
April 2020 published in HydroWires (The Department of Energy) PNNL-29157

The table below shows the vast differences between a closed loop and open loop particularly the additional impact and stress on the aquatic environment:

Department of Energy Study

If you have any additional information to add or corrections, we’d love to hear from you. Thanks for supporting the Catskills Forest Preserve.