August 18, 2004 News & Opinion » Featured story

Water wars 

With the future of water for Adirondack towns on the line, environmentalists are headed into battle --- with each other

When David Ziemba answers the phone at his Wanakena General Store, he simply says "Wanakena," as though he's picking up the phone on behalf of the entire community.

In a way he is.

Behind the counter of his shop, the soft-spoken Buffalo transplant sits at both the geographical and emotional center of this quiet Adirondack community, a cluster of houses so small it was recently downgraded the from a hamlet to a "low intensity use area." And as president of the board of the Wanakena Water Company, he's at the center of the community in another way.

For a few months this past spring, "center" felt more like ground zero in an unlikely battle. After weathering a challenge from the Adirondack Council, one of the park's most prominent environmental advocacy groups, the water company received the go-ahead it needed to upgrade its water system in July. Wanakena's experience, and that of other towns, could be the first taste of a bigger war over the region's water.

Water wars used to be the province of the American West, where farmers and ranchers fought over the right to water with their fists, and occasionally, their rifles. These days, the fights are tamer affairs, waged in courts and legislative chambers. They've also dragged in unlikely combatants, including warring factions within the state's environmental lobby.

With at least 11 Adirondack towns and villages reportedly violating state Department of Health water standards, and pressures on safe water mounting, it's a high-stakes battle unlikely to go away any time soon.

"PRIVATE COMPANY THREATENS ADIRONDACK WILDERNESS AREA" screamed the headline of an April 13 press release issued by the Adirondack Council. The council is an environmental advocacy group dedicated to preserving "the ecological integrity and wild character" of the park. The group called for a halt to planned improvements to the Wanakena Water Company's infrastructure, saying they violate the state constitution's "forever wild" clause.

At issue were two springs on the edge of forest preserve land that supply water to 78 households in Wanakena. They lie at the end of a mile-long corridor designated "primitive" that snakes its way south into the state's largest wilderness area. Primitive classification was granted when the land became wilderness in 1972, to allow the private, non-profit Wanakena Water Company to maintain its water system.

In 1992, the state Department of Health required the company to change its system to remain compliant with health law. Ziemba estimates that the company (which employs no staff) had between $4,000 and $5,000 in the bank at the time. Rather than build a $250,000 filtration plant, the Wanakena Water Company opted to install and cap concrete cisterns to collect the spring water. The company installed those cisterns about 100 feet further from the town and into the forest preserve --- though still using water from the same spring. That act ignited a firestorm of controversy that erupted this spring.

Opposing the water company's plans, the Adirondack Council noted in a press release that "The State Land Master Plan dictates the Wilderness Areas should be roadless and free of man-made structures."

"They do have the right to the wells that are in there," says council Communications Director John Sheehan. But he contends that "it [the master plan] specifically states that they have to seek other sources" before going onto the forest preserve.

Ziemba questions the authority of the state's master plan in Wanakena's situation, citing the company's deed to the water. "The deed says that Wanakena can always use this water," he said. He points to a section in a 1919 copy: "Also excepting and reserving the water rights from springs now used with the right of ingress and egress for the purpose of repairing lines and other purposes incident to the enjoyment of the said water rights."

In other words, the water company can take necessary steps to use the water. The State Land Master Plan notwithstanding, Ziemba says, Wanakena has the right to make necessary improvements to keep using the water. "The master plan should have been written acknowledging that deed," he says.

In 1999, the DOH called for more changes to the system and Wanakena worked out funding and variances to comply. "Slowly but surely, everybody signed off," recounts Ziemba.

Then the Adirondack Council got wind of the project. The council's outspoken opposition to it forced a reclassification hearing for the primitive corridor at the July Adirondack Park Agency meeting. The agency's board ultimately recommended in Wanakena's favor, and Gov. George Pataki signed off on the project.

Predictably, the council has taken some heat for its position. The homegrown environmental group, Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, submitted a three-page letter to the Adirondack Park Agency in support of the water company. Others, like St. Lawrence County Legislator Lloyd Moore (R-Clare) had harsh words for the council: "They're out of control, that's what they are; the Adirondack Council is out of control."

At least some Wanakena residents agree. Asked what the community feels about the controversy, retiree Robert "Red" Northrup replies, "Most of us figure we're getting a schooling." Chris Westbrook, who heads the state ranger school in Wanakena, wonders whether the Adirondack Council has lost sight of its mission. "They're wasting a lot of money and manpower on this project, when there's other things they should be looking at," he says.

"To have people outside the park dictating to you how you should live in the park, it hurts," said Ziemba. "It's like you don't know how to live here or something."

But such criticism is all but lost on the Adirondack Council, which insists on the integrity of the state constitution; only a constitutional amendment can allow for changes to the legal uses of the forest preserve, it says. That stance may help explain the council's seemingly contradictory role in the battle over Adirondack water.

Twenty miles southeast of Wanakena, through one of the largest roadless tracts east of the Mississippi River, lies another community with water woes --- the hamlet of Raquette Lake.

Gregg Wallace is Town Supervisor of Long Lake (the township that includes the hamlet). A bumper sticker on his hatchback reads: "It's not a damn park. It's the Adirondacks. It's our home. It's where we work." He shares Ziemba's resentment of what he sees as outsiders telling him what to do. But unlike Ziemba, he counts the Adirondack Council among his few allies in the environmental community.

"The Adirondack Council and I are on different sides of the fence on occasion," he says. "But, on this water issue, they've at least stepped up to the plate."

Just two weeks after attacking Wanakena's plans, holding up Raquette Lake as an example, the council called for an amendment to the state constitution allowing drilled wells for municipal use on up to two percent (55,166 acres) of "forever wild" forest preserve land. The rest of the state's environmental community took no immediate stand on the proposal, but eventually opposed it.

Raquette Lake's water supply comes from a reservoir on forest preserve land (under a 1913 amendment) about a mile into the woods. Wallace describes the water as "about the color of a good amber beer."

The problems with Raquette Lake's water supply come from the chlorine added to disinfect it. Chlorine reacts with tannic acid and organic matter in the water to form what Sheehan calls a "toxic soup." Some possible end products: ammonia, methane, and dioxins, to name a few. Wallace can't remember the name of the chemicals that are present, but knows tests revealed carcinogens. "Once we heard that word we thought [the exact name of the compound] was immaterial," he says.

Raquette Lake has been under a boil order for more than a year. Some water for drinking and cooking, if it's not purchased privately, comes from a tanker the DOH sends in. For residents in a region containing some of the world's greatest reserves of freshwater, this seems unthinkable.

This incredulity is matched only by disbelief over the actions of some environmental groups (but not the Adirondack Council) who they see as bent on stopping them from improving their situation. "The environmental groups seem to be running the show," Wallace says.

A hint of exasperation creeps into Wallace's voice when he speaks about his town's water system. "This is not an environmental issue; it's a health and safety issue," he says. "Water's water. It doesn't matter where it comes from."

The state senate passed a resolution calling for the amendment June 21. The assembly passed an amended version August 11, giving only Raquette Lake permission for such a well, but rescinding parts of a 1913 amendment allowing forest preserve land to be flooded for canals and reservoirs. There's now talk of a compromise between the two resolutions.

Wallace, who says he never sought a constitutional amendment, hoped such a solution to Raquette Lake's difficulties would have paved the way for other struggling Adirondack communities. He resents that the council's original park-wide proposal was altered by lobbyists and that the future of his hamlet's water is being used as a bargaining chip to restrict potential solutions for other towns. State agencies and some legislators have "bent over backwards" to help Raquette Lake, he says, but efforts to create a long-term fix have been stalled by the influence of environmental lobbyists in the assembly.

Wallace says that he, like many other park residents, doesn't want to harm the park --- after all, they live here, as the bumper sticker states. "We are conservationists. I mean, that's why people move here," he says. But he draws a line between conservationists like himself and preservationists. The advocacy groups in Albany are preservationists, he charges, not wanting to see any physical changes to the environment.

That's something Ziemba would agree with. He argues that those like his family, who've chosen to settle in Adirondack towns like Wanakena, have a personal stake in preserving the wilderness. "We really care about everything, that's why we're here," says Ziemba's wife Susan. "We would never do anything to harm it; it's our backyard."

Someone should tell that to the advocacy groups in "environmental alley," as Hamilton Street has been dubbed by Albany insiders. There, just a few blocks east of the state capitol, The Adirondack Council's legislative offices face those of the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club, The Adirondack Mountain Club, and Environmental Advocates of New York across the street. These days, that narrow street might as well be a canyon reflecting a deep divide between the way the council and the other three groups approach this conflict.

Each of the other groups got a preview of the Adirondack Council's amendment proposal, but each eventually opposed it. Sheehan dismissed their opposition. "It's always nice to have someone who's knee-jerk against something without knowing what it is," he says.

"I never liked the big omnibus [amendment resolution] that was going to cover the whole park," says Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Neil Woodworth. He worked on language for the assembly's version of the resolution, helping only Raquette Lake. Woodworth points to other specific problems where a site-specific amendment was the solution, including a cemetery in Keene and an airport in Piseco.

"I wanted just to fix the Raquette Lake problem," he says. "Call me a conservative on changing the constitution; I've always really strongly argued for as tightly worded an amendment as possible." He dislikes what he calls "the land bank approach," which would open far more land than he believes is necessary.

The Sierra Club's Legislative Director John Stouffer raises the same objection in opposing the broader version of the amendment. "The Adirondack Council's proposal potentially allowed for drilling on thousands of acres of Forest Preserve lands," he says. "That just created too much potential for abuse." But rather than propose its own long-term solution, he says, the Sierra Club "will consider each municipality's problem on a stand-alone basis" should more problems arise.

Like Environmental Advocates of New York Executive Director Rob Moore, Stouffer's also not convinced that water problems are widespread in the park. "Most of them [the 11 Adirondack towns with DOH water violations] don't have anything to do with the water supply," Moore says, contending that some simply have infrastructure problems.

"When more research was done, it turned out Raquette Lake was really the only community in this situation," he says.

Not so, counters Sheehan. "The number of communities facing drinking water problems is big," he says. Especially troubling is the growing problem of contamination from road salt, which prompted the town of Keene to drill diagonally under the Ausable River in recent years at great expense to taxpayers.

As traffic increases on Adirondack highways, Sheehan predicts salt will become an even more serious threat to water sources. The amendment aimed to solve such problems "in a way that would make it possible to benefit Adirondack communities," Sheehan says. Despite having two months with the proposal to offer ideas and solutions, the other environmentalist groups failed to come forward with concerns when a compromise was still likely, he says. "They blew it. Nothing happened; that's the worst possible thing."

There's still a chance --- though most involved believe it's a slim one --- that the current legislature could reach a compromise, which could put an amendment proposal before the state's voters as early as November 2005.

In the meantime, Raquette Lake has been granted "emergency authorization" to temporarily alleviate the hamlet's water crisis by tapping several test wells on forest preserve land. A long-term solution could remain elusive, though. And until a permanent solution is found, Adirondack towns risk either bureaucratic tie-ups like the one Wanakena experienced, or protracted and dangerous water problems like Raquette Lake.

And as Sheehan points out, temporary fixes put towns at risk of being sued on constitutional grounds. Though the Adirondack Council hasn't ruled that course out themselves in Wanakena's case, Sheehan says the group recognizes the futility of making policy by lawsuit: "All we'd be doing is making a bunch of lawyers rich," he says, "not solving the water problems."

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