What is the Real Purpose of the Breathless Reporting on New Rochelle Reservoir No. 1 Dam? — Part I

Written By: Robert Cox

NEW ROCHELLE, NY — Talk about burying the lede!

There has been a good deal of breathless reporting on the New Rochelle Reservoir No. 1 Dam which has been the subject of a regional dispute for decades and currently the subject of a lawsuit in the New York State Supreme Court.

The levees failing in New Orleans after Katrina!

The Johnstown Flood killing thousands!

Racism by Zip Code!

Buried within this reporting (and otherwise ignored) is the following statement from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

New Rochelle Reservoir No. 1 Dam is not in imminent danger of failing.

The statement from the NYSED begins as follows:

While DEC does not comment on active litigation, we are committed to working with all parties involved in this case to develop and implement the most effective solution to protect public health, public safety, and the environment. DEC prioritizes dam safety, which is critically important to protect our communities and infrastructure from potential harm. For information about dam safety, visit https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/4991.html.

The statement goes on to say New Rochelle Reservoir No. 1 Dam is rated “unsound” by the NYSDEC then explained, on background, that dams in New York State are rated based on condition: a rating of “unsound” means a dam “is NOT in imminent danger of failing” whereas a rating of “unsafe” means a dam IS in imminent danger of failing and requires immediate action.

Hmm? That being the case, what is all the fuss about?

This is not to say nothing should be done about the dam which has not been maintained in many decades and could someday become unsafe but the hysterical and hyperbolic reporting is unwarranted and appears based on agendas that have nothing to do with the risk of the dam failing any time soon.

We agree with the NYSDEC that all parties involved should come to some sort of agreement that results in addressing the issue head on.

“It is nevertheless past time to address the dam’s deficient condition and lack of maintenance so that it does not deteriorate to unsafe status”, said the NYSDEC and went on to say it “urges all dam owners, including New Rochelle, to coordinate emergency plans with local communities downstream to ensure they are protected. DEC prioritizes dam safety, which is critically important to protect our communities and infrastructure from potential harm.”

By way of background, which we will get into in detail in a follow up article, the City of New Rochelle provided a statement explaining how, from the City’s perspective, the matter arrived at this point.

The complaint was brought against the City of New Rochelle with respect to the New Rochelle Reservoir Dam, located on the Hutchinson River Parkway partially in the City of New Rochelle and partially in the Town of Eastchester.  The complaint alleges that portions of the dam structure have deteriorated due to improper maintenance.  The State is seeking civil penalties against the City of New Rochelle in addition to an order directing the City of New Rochelle to obtain the necessary permits and to conduct the necessary studies to repair the dam in accordance with State regulations.

The main portion of the dam is owned by a defunct corporation.  The portion that is owned by the City of New Rochelle includes a relatively small area of the dam structure itself and a portion of the spillway area.  The City of New Rochelle obtained this property through in a tax foreclosure in 1947.  When we took title, apparently we took title to a lot that is partially in New Rochelle and partially in the Town of Eastchester.

 The state has targeted New Rochelle because we own a portion of the dam – however, the state also owns a portion of the dam.  We agreed to participate in the analysis of the dam following an order of the court providing access to all parties.  The study was funded by the county via an IMA.

Much has been made of the fact that the NYSDEC has classified the structure as a Hazard Class “C”, high hazard dam. 

Sounds scary, right?

Not really. 

This classification is due to the presence of the Hutchinson River Parkway and highly developed areas downriver of the dam, where a catastrophic event would “have a significant impact and may endanger human life and property”.

Even if the dam was brand new, in perfect condition and exceeded every safety standard it would still be classified as Hazard Class “C”, high hazard

In 2017, New York State identified 258 dams in Westchester of which 33 were classified as “Class C” high-hazard level including the Grassy Sprain Reservoir in Yonkers, the Mamaroneck Reservoir in Harrison and Kensico in North Castle. The Kensico dam is regarded as one of the best built, most well-maintained dams in the state; no one is proposing to de-water or tear down the Kensico dam because it is rated “Class C” high-hazard level.

“Class C” high-hazard level is not a measure of the integrity of the dam or the condition of the dam but only what the outcome would be if the dam were to fail based on the dam’s location — and most of that outcome would be to drivers on the Hutchison River Parkway.

In other words, the NYSDEC does not believe the dam is likely to fail anytime soon; it is classified as Hazard Class “C”, high hazard based on its location and estimates of the result of a dam failure should it occur.

That said, there are issues with the integrity of the dam, and they should be addressed.

As noted, the NYSDEC has rated New Rochelle Reservoir No. 1 Dam as “Unsound”. For the full details read the reports linked below but here is a summary.

The right embankment, an earthen dam, is an area of concern because it cannot be inspected easily. The area is owned by the Town Houses at Lake Isle Association. The embankment was filled in about 40 years ago, so residents could have a lawn between their homes and the lake. Trees were planted along the lake front to beautify the area. Because the dam has been covered by dirt, there is no way to inspect the dam in that area. Trees should never be planted on a dam as the root systems weaken the dam and create ways for water to escape.

Ownership of the masonry dam including the Gatehouse, is split: one part owned by Block 138 Corporation, a defunct corporation, and the other part by the City of New Rochelle.

The stones are granite and considered in good condition. New Rochelle also owns a portion of the earthen dam along the left embankment but the water depth in that area is no more than 5-6 feet (and most is 1-2 feet) and the dam is considered to be in good condition.

Most of the area impacted should the dam fail would be the Hutchinson River Parkway and the Nature Study Woods, both owned and maintained by Westchester County. The Nature Study Woods park was never developed precisely because that property is in the Hutchison River flood plain.

Claims that Mount Vernon High School would be impacted by a wave of rushing water appear unfounded as the water would have to travel 3.5 miles, and flow about a half mile east of its projected direction (into the Nature Study Woods) then leap over the Cross County Parkway. Ironically, the projected failure of New Rochelle Reservoir No. 3 Dam would further serve to redirect water away from the high school not towards it.

The Hutchinson River Parkway in that area is mostly at or below grade, as anyone who has driven on the Hutch during a rainstorm could tell you. Water in that area flows down into the parkway roadbed, then south, following the direction of the Hutchison River. Land alongside the parkway is mostly at elevation so is not impacted when heavy rains flood the Hutch which serves to funnel the water away from developed property.

The current Emergency Action Plan for New Rochelle, updated in 2016, and again in January 2020, anticipates the area most in danger is the portion of the Hutchinson River Parkway underneath the Mill Road overpass. The water, it is expected, would then flow down the length of the parkway and into the much smaller New Rochelle Reservoir No. 3 Dam which would likely also fail. At that point, most of the water would flow into the Nature Study Woods, owned by Westchester County, and affect a few homes at the end of Norman Road in New Rochelle as well as the New York State Department of Transportation depot on the Hutchinson River Parkway. New Rochelle Reservoir No. 2 Dam would also likely fail.

New Rochelle Reservoir No. 2 Dam and New Rochelle Reservoir No. 3 Dam are owned by Westchester County. New Rochelle Reservoir No. 3 Dam was recently upgraded and is considered well-maintained. New Rochelle Reservoir No. 3 is above New Rochelle Reservoir No. 2 because New Rochelle Reservoir No. 2 was built shortly after New Rochelle Reservoir No. 1 and New Rochelle Reservoir No. 3 was built about 15 years later in between the other two so the numbering of the dams running north to south is out of sequence.

If New Rochelle Reservoir No. 1 Dam were to show signs of failing the first response in the Emergency Action Plan is to contact the Westchester County Police to shut down the impacted section of the Hutchinson River Parkway.

If there was genuine concern today about the imminent failure of the dam, the solution would be post an officer from the Westchester County Police to observe the dam at a safe distance — or at least set up cameras and sensors to monitor signs of failure — so that the Hutchinson River Parkway could be closed quickly.

One question we have asked but remains unanswered is, how long it would take for any flood waters to recede.

The breathless and hyperbolic reporting has been based largely on an out-of-date DRAFT report from January 2020. A later draft, marked “revision 4” obtained exclusively by Talk of the Sound, was delivered to the City of New Rochelle in August 2020. The City has been in discussions with the NYSDEC and continues to make revisions, according to City officials. The City of New Rochelle commissioned a separate report on the dam spillway which we have requested as well.

All three documents were produced by Mott MacDonald, an engineering firm based in Rye Brook, NY at the request of the City of New Rochelle.

DRAFT Dam Assessment Report for New Rochelle Reservoir No. 1 Dam DEC Dam ID # 215-0207 is dated January 6, 2020 and runs 48 pages.

DRAFT Dam Assessment Report for New Rochelle Reservoir No. 1 Dam DEC Dam ID # 215-0207 is dated August 10, 2020 runs 66 pages.

We ran a document comparison on Adobe Acrobat which identified 1,344 changes including 244 replacements, 894 insertions and 73 deletions.

Many of the changes were based on information provided by the City of New Rochelle, review of several reports updated in January 2020 — an updated Emergency Action Plan, an updated Safety Inspection Report and a Dam Inspection and Maintenance Plan — and additional research and analysis by Mott MacDonald.

There are major differences in the recommendations.

Most notably the recommendation made on Page 11 in the DRAFT Dam Assessment Report for New Rochelle Reservoir No. 1 Dam DEC Dam ID # 215-0207 dated January 6, 2020:

Develop and implement an engineered plan to temporarily lower the water level at the dam as soon as possible. The recommendation to temporarily dewater the reservoir will involve an engineered procedure to draw down by pump, siphon, or other methods at a controlled rate (not too rapidly) to a defined target elevation. Normal water elevations should be restored when Dam safety compliance issues are resolved.

Has been replaced on Page 39 in the DRAFT Dam Assessment Report for New Rochelle Reservoir No. 1 Dam DEC Dam ID # 215-0207 dated August 10, 2020:

The proposed rehabilitation measures appear to improve the structural stability of the masonry dam by reducing the water level in the reservoir. In the proposed scenario the likelihood of failure along the base of the dam is significantly reduced for most of the considered loading conditions. However, it is noted that the tension that develops at the heel of the dam for design loading condition (Case 3) is significant enough to lead to cracking through the whole base of the dam resulting in the possible failure of the structure.

The plan advocated in the reporting by the Journal News and Black Westchester — to immediately lower that water level — is no longer operative. The engineers have since concluded, based on further investigation, that lowering the water level might bring about precisely the catastrophic failure all involved want to avoid.

Which is why you do not base your reporting on first drafts!

The August 10, 2020 document (revision 4) includes a section on various revisions and updated drafts over the course of 2020, changes which remain ongoing.

The August 10, 2020 document’s Table of Contents is radically different from the January 6, 2020 document.

There are so many changes that a detailed analysis of those changes between version 1 and revision 4 requires a separate series of articles.

One major difference worth noting there is that the January version ends on Page 10 to 11 (2 pages) with “Chapter 6 Conclusions” whereas the August version ends with “Chapter 7 Conclusion and Recommendations” on Page 45 to 52 (8 pages).

Missing from the Journal News and Black Westchester Report is that the updated report from August 2020 included 7 options on how to address issues with the Masonry Dam.

On page 50, Mott MacDonald makes its recommendation on the Masonry Dam:

Table 7.2. From a constructability point of view, this preliminary analysis suggests that the most promising solution appears to be Option 5, eventually coupled with reservoir desilting (Option 1) and drain installation (Option 6). Option 3 would achieve an acceptable factor of safety; however, specialized equipment would be needed.

NOTE: There appear to be typos in Option 4, page 47 and Option 5, page 49, but we believe the drawing above is meant to be for Option 5.

Chapter 7 of the August 2020 version continues by concluding “the earthen dikes are believed to have an adequate factor of safety for Case No. 1 through 4 as outlined by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC 1989)” but recommends further investigation.

There are additional recommendations for the Spillway Capacity (and a separate report, as mentioned elsewhere in this article) and the Low-Level Outlet.

The Conclusion section of the August 2020 report states:

Stability analysis for the masonry section of the dam of New Rochelle Reservoir No. 1 indicates that, for the existing scenario, the factors of safety are less than those recommended by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC 1989). Although this result is consistent with the conclusions from the 1979 New York District Corps of Engineers report (USACE 1979), it is noted that, for the purpose of the analysis, certain conservative assumptions were made, and the actual safety factors may be higher than those calculated. It is therefore possible that additional investigations such as those to determine the composition of the dam core or dam foundation level would allow a better assessment of the structural stability of the masonry dam.

> Modelling (sic) of the proposed lowering of water levels within the reservoir are expected to improve the structural stability of the dam by reducing the horizontal hydrostatic pressure acting on the upstream dam face during both normal and flood conditions. However, it is noted that, even assuming that no cracking can take place at the base of the dam, the minimum safety requirements recommended by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC 1989) are not still met for all the considered loading conditions, although this does not necessarily suggest ultimate failure. As noted the proposed scenario assumed one (1) foot of freeboard. If the new spillway was raised to eliminate all freeboard the hydrostatic loading conditions would increase thereby reducing the factors of safety. Final stability calculations will be required for the final design of the modifications to spillway and further investigation of the composition of the dam.

Last month, the Journal News ran the first of a series of stories by Lohud Tax Watch Columnist David McKay Wilson concerning New Rochelle Reservoir No. 1 Dam. Black Westchester, a news outlet owned by Publisher Damon K. Jones and Editor-In-Chief AJ Woodson have written a series of articles offering responses to the LoHud articles.

The Journal News is working off outdated information by relying on a report that was an initial draft report provided to the City of New Rochelle a year-ago today. Black Westchester is relying on the Journal News.

As a result, you have people calling for the dam to be drained which engineers believe may cause a catastrophic failure.

Damon Jones of Black Westchester is quoted in the Journal News saying of the dam, “The dangers it presents downstream are to black and brown people. This goes back to the lack of value our society has for black lives. I say let’s drain the dam, so we can save lives.”

Mount Vernon City Council Candidate, Lauren Carter, filmed a campaign video standing in front of the dam, holding the outdated draft report, stating emphatically that she wants the dam drained.

After reading published reports and the damn (sic) safety inspection report submitted to the city of New Rochelle, and based on maintenance that has been conducted so far or the lack thereof.

The basic tenor of the reporting has been, unfortunately, to portray the issue of what to do about New Rochelle Reservoir No. 1 Dam as one of class and race.

McKay, writing in the Journal News, says:

(Lake Isle) “serves as a private playground for about 50 single-family homeowners in Eastchester and New Rochelle, as well as about 80 owners of Townhouses at Lake Isle and another 500 families at the Interlaken co-op on California Road. They swim and paddle kayaks on the lake. They sunbathe on its shores, and enjoy the financial premium associated with scarce lakefront property in southern Westchester.

And.

When the dam was built in 1894 to collect the waters of the Hutchinson River, it provided drinking water for the city of New Rochelle. Today, it provides a private playground for homeowners who swim and boat there. The only public access is at the dam’s base, which is open through land owned by New York state along the Leatherstocking Trail.

NOTE: The City of New Rochelle was not incorporated until 1899. The drinking water supplied by the dam was for what was then the Village of New Rochelle. The trail by the dam is not the Leatherstocking Trail but rather the Colonial Greenway Trail of which the Leatherstocking Trail, located miles away, mostly in Mamaroneck, is a part.

Jones and Woodson calls Lake Isle a blatant form of “racism by zip code” where “wealthy Westchester residents in municipalities that are majority white refuse to pay their share of maintenance because the damage would be less affluent Black and Brown Communities, in a chance of the flood”.

The flood is characterized as Mount Vernon’s Katrina.

Lake Isle is compared to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, which purchased an abandoned reservoir originally built as part of a canal network and converted it to a private resort lake for their wealthy associates, many connected to Carnegie Steel. 

The worst dam disaster in the US occurred in 1893 when the South Fork Dam in Pennsylvania, owned and used as a playground for wealthy industrialists, collapsed. Billions of gallons of water barreled towards Johnstown, Pennsylvania was destroying it in only 10-minutes. Over two thousand lives were lost, and property damage totaled $342 million in today’s dollars. Interestingly, the well-financed owners avoided legal responsibility for that incident.

Readers will note that both McKay and Jones/Woodson use the same word — “playground” — and then Jones/Woodson use that same word to connect Lake Isle to the Johnstown Flood.

The size of the dam in Pennsylvania contained about 3.85 billion gallons of water. By contrast, New Rochelle Reservoir No. 1 Dam contains about 192 million gallons of water. — less than 5% of the capacity of the dam owned by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.

McKay has a cozy relationship with high-ranking Democrats in Westchester County including County Executive George Latimer (see Meet the Latimer Lap Dogs: David McKay Wilson of the Journal News) so it is no surprise that McKay takes gratuitous shots not only at the largely Republican town of Eastchester but shamelessly drags the Town Supervisor’s mother into the story:

Among the new defendants is Margaret Colavita, the mother of Eastchester Supervisor Anthony Colavita, who owns a home on Lake Shore Drive. 

Reporting like this does not simply fall out of the sky. It is done with a purpose and the dominoes are set up in advance.

Whatever the actual purpose, McKay and Jones/Woodson are less concerned with accuracy and more concerned with scoring cheap political points through fear-mongering and sowing class and racial divisions among Westchester residents.

Readers may wonder why?

When the stories are presented in sequence, it becomes apparent that there is an intent behind the reporting and that intent appears multifaceted.

At this point, we can only speculate, but one possibility is to tee up Westchester County to be Mount Vernon’s “White Knight” riding into “save” the “black and brown people” including Mount Vernon High School from the rich, white people in Eastchester who rather seen those down river drowned than be denied their “view shed”, sunbathing and kayaking.

It might be Mount Vernon Democrats looking for issues to run on in the Mount Vernon City Council race. One candidate went to the dam to be photographed with a copy of the outdated report.

Another is that Democrats, and in particular Indivisible Westchester Democrats see opportunities both in Eastchester and at the County Board of Legislators as well as Mount Vernon. Eastchester has been a traditional stronghold but has been trending Blue. There are rumors that Indivisible Westchester, looking to gain more of a foothold countywide is eyeing a primary run against Westchester County Legislator Terry Clements, also a Democrat but not part of Indivisible Westchester.

A point raised by many including Pelham Mayor Chance Muller, Assemblyperson Amy Paul and County Legislator Damon Maher, among others is push for public access to a private lake.

There may be myriad other reasons, some planned and some just politicians and activist being opportunistic. Whatever machinations are at play there are two inarguable things: the NYSDEC says there is no imminent danger of the dam collapsing and political gamesmanship is not likely to lead to the sort of compromise needed among the homeowners along Lake Isle or the municipalities of Eastchester and New Rochelle.

None of the Journal News articles are available to the public but rather published behind a paywall. We will add a summary of those paywall articles.

STORY 1: 12/15/20

‘Unsound’ Lake Isle dam is deteriorating, ignored and unclaimed by municipalities (behind paywall)

Lohud Tax Watch Columnist David McKay Wilson 12/15/20

The saga surrounding the dam on Lake Isle in Eastchester continues (free, 1 video)

Lohud Tax Watch Columnist David McKay Wilson 12/15/20

Lake Isle Dam — Eastchester (free, 7 photos)

Lohud Tax Watch Columnist David McKay Wilson 12/15/20

STORY 2: 12/16/20

Who will pay the millions to fix Lake Isle dam? Or Lawmakers want regional solution for Lake Isle dam repairs in Eastchester and New Rochelle (behind paywall)

Lohud Tax Watch Columnist David McKay Wilson 12/16/20

STORY 3: 12/22/20

Shadows of Katrina In Westchester, Lake Isle Dam Risk To Mount Vernon or Another example of racism by zip code in Westchester County, slapping you in the face

BW News Damon K. Jones 12/22/20

STORY 4: 12/24/20

Here’s why critics wants Lake Isle dam drained or Critics say drain Lake Isle, or fix troubled dam with public funds and open it to the public (behind paywall)

Lohud Tax Watch Columnist David McKay Wilson 12/24/20

STORY 5: 1/2/21

Mount Vernon City Council Candidate Lauren Carter Addresses Impacts Of A Potential Lake Isle Dam Failure

BW News AJ Woodson 1/2/21

STORY 6: 1/5/21

Legislator Tyrae Woodson-Samuels Speaks Out on Lake Isle Dam

BW News AJ Woodson 1/5/21

8 thoughts on “What is the Real Purpose of the Breathless Reporting on New Rochelle Reservoir No. 1 Dam? — Part I”

  1. The cover story of the 12/31/20 edition of the Journal News Express was “Who will pay the millions needed to fix Lake Isle dam?”

    I don’t know if this article is exactly the same as the one published online on 12/16 but I just wanted to point out that the Express is widely distributed for free with various store flyers so many people who don’t read the Journal News will have seen it. It was the first time I heard about this issue and found it very disturbing. Thanks for your clarifications.

    1. I do not know if Gannett published the same story in the Express.

      I would not agree the Express is “widely” distributed and so many people who don’t read the Journal News will have seen it.

      For starters if you are reading an article in Express you ARE reading the Journal News.

      The Journal News has a daily circulation of about 42,000 across Westchester and Rockland so for about 1.3 mm they sell 42,000 papers so about 97% get the main paper. The express is a sort of regional hyperlocal with 5 regions of which one is Sound Shore. I would hazard a guess that a few hundred people in the Sound Shore area read the story in the express.

      I found your statement “first time I heard about this issue and found it very disturbing.” Maybe consider WHY that is.

      Did it seem to you in reading the express story that there was some imminent danger? What was “disturbing”?

  2. Thank you for your comprehensive research on this issue and for providing readers with links to underlying reference sources. Looking forward reading follow-up piece(s).

  3. I am so happy that this information has been made public. When I read all the false news in the Journal News articles, I was shocked. That was not journalism; it was editorials based on opinions ,not facts. Wilson does not present news or facts, but twists the facts as he wants it to be.

    These articles should only be on an editorial page of a newspaper, which the Journal News does not have. That would allow readers to comment on these articles. All NYC newspapers have editorial pages.

    Thanks again for all your hard work on this.

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