Water, Water, Everywhere

As of April 12, reservoirs under the Regulating District’s jurisdiction are more than full, having provided flood protection to downstream communities over the course of multiple rain – not snow – events over the winter months. This is atypical to say the least, as our storage reservoirs normally decrease in elevation – providing more storage – over the winter months when outflow from the reservoirs can greatly exceed inflow into the reservoirs. A central premise to this normal dynamic is that during the winter months, most precipitation falls as snow, at least in areas tributary to the reservoirs. The resulting snowpack does produce inflow, but typically not until late March, early April, when our target elevation rule curves show a pronounced increase in elevation.

This year, with the exception of the recent snowfall, we have already seen that inflow into the reservoirs. Essentially, this has put us up to 2 months ahead of schedule from a hydrology perspective. Does this mean we are not in a position to provide flood protection this spring if we receive heavy rainfall? Not at all. The impetus behind constructing the Conklingville Dam, for example, was reducing downstream flood peaks during events like the 1913 flood which devasted communities like Waterford, Troy, Cohoes, and Albany and galvanized public support for the creation of the Great Sacandaga Lake to reduce downstream flooding. Central to this reservoir functioning as intended is the ability to temporarily reduce much less outflow from the reservoir that the inflow coming in. The water that would naturally flow downstream in the Sacandaga River ultimately goes where gravity wants it to anyway, but it is the timing which is critical here, allowing the peak flood elevation to be reduced by spreading the extra water out over a greater period of time. Even when the reservoir is close to full, and in fact even when water is being conveyed over the spillway, these natural flows are throttled back successfully, with inflow exceeding outflow.

In particular, of all the reservoirs within our jurisdiction, Great Sacandaga Lake, where we are currently augmenting releases through the E.J. West hydroelectric plant with additional releases through the low level “Dow” outlet valves at Conklingville Dam, receives a tremendous amount of attention and generates a great deal of public interest where water management is concerned. On top of the very real (and beyond our control) meteorological factors that influence the inflow into the reservoir, a license from the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC) that the Regulating District had to accept because of Brookfield Renewable’s E.J. West Power Plant places real restrictions on whether, and to what extent, the Regulating District can release additional water from Great Sacandaga Lake beyond what the conditions of the license prescribe. Generally, this license tends to keep reservoir elevations higher so more electricity can be generated by Brookfield. More on the operation of Great Sacandaga Lake can be found here.

So we know that the elevations we are seeing have been very unusual – in some cases unprecedented – for this time of year. What does that mean for downstream communities? Well, with snowpack much lower than normal by an order of magnitude and the short-term outlook relatively warm and dry, the Regulating District’s reservoirs remain poised to provide important flood protection benefits. For residents on, and summertime visitors to, reservoirs under our jurisdiction? At this point, there’s no reason to fear either that springtime levels will approach flood stage, or that late summer levels will be abnormally low. Ultimately though, elevations will be a product of how much inflow we get, and what releases we can make from an operational, regulatory, and contractual standpoint.

Brookfield Dispute Update

Speaking of contracts, we are now in the 10th month for which we have not received lease revenue for Brookfield Renewable’s operation at the E.J. West hydroelectric plant at Conklingville Dam. This revenue of $1.5 million annually had been a critical part of the Regulating District’s funding model, helping us control the share of operational and capital construction expenses that permit holders and beneficiaries, like the Counties of Saratoga, Warren, Washington, Albany, and Rensselaer, have been called on to bear. After enacting the first increase in Great Sacandaga Lake permit fees in 20 years in 2021, the Board has been clear that no additional permit fee increases will be proposed anytime in the near future. This means that the impact of Brookfield Renewable suspending payments to the Regulating District will be felt primarily by taxpayers in those downstream counties. The Regulating District will continue to fight to ensure that Brookfield is required to once again pay its fair share, and is represented by the New York State Attorney General in the matter.
In the meantime, the Regulating District continues to coordinate closely and effectively with the water management professionals at Brookfield in the day-to-day operation of Great Sacandaga Lake and other facilities. Members of the public who rely on the responsible management of our reservoirs for flood protection, flow augmentation, livelihood, recreation and other quality of life benefits should rest assured that the ongoing legal dispute has not yet resulted in operational issues, nor will the Regulating District allow it to.