JEFFERSONVILLE, NY — Drought is an increasingly relevant threat to the Upper Delaware River Valley. While the Delaware River Basin has not (as of time of writing) entered a state of drought, …
JEFFERSONVILLE, NY — Drought is an increasingly relevant threat to the Upper Delaware River Valley. While the Delaware River Basin has not (as of time of writing) entered a state of drought, drought watches and warnings abound on both sides of the river.
Despite the immediacy of drought’s threat, other, older problems continue to impact the Upper Delaware River Valley. For one lake in Jeffersonville, drought is much less a concern than the twin threats of aging infrastructure and strained finances.
Lake Jefferson—commonly called Lake Jeff—sits on the border of the Village of Jeffersonville. It’s a 41-acre lake, according to lake-link.com, that slows water from the East Branch of the Callicoon Creek as it passes into and through the village.
Lake Jeff got its start in 1927 with the construction of the Lake Jeff dam. The dam was constructed for hydropower, according to village historian Bill Cutler, and it produces power to this day; it powered local radio station WJFF until the station’s move to Liberty earlier this year.
The lake played host to vacationers for decades, until the Lake Jefferson Hotel closed in 1998. Even today, it provides a place for recreation and a vibrant ecosystem for wildlife.
“When I looked into [the lake], I saw it as a way of the town having a water feature,” says Lauren Seikaly, who owns multiple businesses in Jeffersonville, including the restaurant Tavern on Main.
The lake’s presence near Jeffersonville gives business owners and visitors a reason to chose the village over other Main Street communities in Sullivan County.
The dam’s age poses a problem for the lake, and for all the communities that rely on the lake. The owners of the 95-year-old dam have kept up with maintenance as they could, but it needs additional work to be brought up to code for 2022.
Area resident Andrew Weinstein founded the Lake Jeff Conservation Association (LJCA) in 2020 to explore options for the dam’s repair. Seikaly joined the organization about a year in; she knew Weinstein back in New York City.
LJCA initially hoped to fund a repair of the dam through its own fundraising efforts. It expected repairs to cost around $150,000, said Seikaly. As part of its due diligence, it invested $50,000 in an engineers’ report examining the state of the dam.
That report said repairing the dam to meet current regulations could cost up to $2 million.
“Two million dollars is too much to raise in this small town,” said Seikaly—especially with the limited time afforded the group to raise it.
A number of regulatory agencies at the state and the federal levels have a say over the dam’s future, specifically the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commision and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
“USFWS… has been reasonable and understanding, by and large,” said Weinstein. “That’s because the East Branch [of Callicoon Creek] is not essential to any endangered or threatened species. But [the agency has] always made clear that [its] preference is for dam removal and waterway restoration.”
The agency gave the private owners of the Lake Jeff dam an ultimatum: either show a financial commitment to repair it, or agree to have it removed. While those talks are ongoing, LJCA hopes to find funding to have the dam repaired before USFWS can make its arrangements to get the dam removed.
LJCA’s urgency to keep the dam in places comes from its analysis about the damage its removal could cause.
A hydrology status report prepared by Illing Engineering Services shows that 31.5 square miles of watershed feed into Lake Jeff. With steep terrain and few supporting ponds, water from that watershed can feed in quickly.
Without the dam, Jeffersonville loses a crucial barrier to protect the village from flooding, said Seikaly. “It’s not about water getting into our basements, it’s about keeping businesses afloat.”
LJCA is currently working on a commitment from the government to fund the dam’s repair. The group had found support from Marc Molinaro, candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives—$2 million was easy for government, he told members of LJCA—but the group was back to square one after Molinaro’s loss to Pat Ryan.
The message LJCA is trying to send: $2 million is a small price to pay for flood protection, particularly considering the costs of rebuilding following floods.
“This is really about prevention,” said Seikaly. “The price tag of $2 million might seem like a lot to someone who’s been contributing $100 here and there… [but] the cost of the damage that will come is equal to or more the cost of putting in [an up-to-standards] dam.”
Correction: This story originally referred to the Lake Jeff advocate group as the Lake Jefferson Conservation Organization; it is properly the Lake Jefferson Conservation Association. This has been corrected as of 1:30 p.m., September 9. Additionally, Weinstein said to the River Reporter that the LJCA's meeting with Molinaro did not indicate the group's endorsement of any candidate in particular: "Our group is thoroughly apolitical and we seek the support of any and all who prevail in November's election."
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