By Daniel Way
Well, we’ve finally done it. The human race, which emerged from the mists of time millions of years ago, needed only two centuries since discovering fossil fuels to belch so much carbon dioxide and methane into the Earth’s atmosphere that our glaciers and permafrost are melting, sea levels are rising, and violent storms are causing massive damage to our farmlands, coastlines and residential areas. According to Bill McKibben, the avatar against climate change and founder of the worldwide environmental movement 350.org, mankind has pumped as much CO2 into the atmosphere since 1989 as it did in all of human history before that. Whole countries such as India, Micronesia, The Seychelles, Maldives, and other island countries may become unlivable or submerged, vast swaths of Australia and California are being incinerated, and mass extinctions are underway. Although some countries are belatedly taking real steps to combat climate change, ours as a nation is not one of them. Our individual states are left to deal with the problem in whatever way works best for them, if they do anything at all.
It seems quaint now to think back to the fact that when the Adirondack Park was created in 1892, the citizens of New York themselves had the power to protect the park and its inhabitants from man-made despoiling. And for the next several generations, the previously clear-cut forests and acidified lakes within the Adirondack Park were gradually restored. Sadly, as climate change progresses, the future health of the Adirondack Park is now largely beyond local or regional control. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing the people of the Adirondacks can do to fight it. And if, in taking up the cause, some towns within the blue line can profit economically while battling this global menace, they should meet the challenge in every way possible.
Back at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the Adirondacks were an untamed wilderness. The earliest commerce to make its way into the interior of that wilderness was the lumber industry, and Hamilton County was in the very center of it. As described in 1956 by authors Ted Aber and Stella King in The History of Hamilton County,
Since the early part of the 19th century, lumbermen had moved steadily northward and westward along the eastern slopes of the Adirondacks in their quest for logs to feed the insatiable appetites of the mills along the Hudson River. Even before midcentury, they had penetrated deep into the Adirondack Wilderness. Now they were at work in the central part of Hamilton County, felling trees in winter, sending them down the tumbling mountain streams in early spring… By 1846,… they came upon the three small Indian Lakes, connected by a rapid stream. Promptly, they build a dam to join the lakes into one so that logs could be more easily floated to a convenient location, raising the lake several feet… Always, the dam at the foot of Indian Lake was being built higher. The first dam, built in 1845, was superseded by one constructed in the 1860s. Finally, in 1898, the present dam was built by the Indian River Company under an agreement with the New York State Forest Preserve Board.
In 2019, New York State finally sounded the climate change alarm by declaring that New York State must achieve a carbon free electricity system by 2040 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions 85% below 1990 levels by 2050. To his credit, then-Governor Cuomo included these mandates in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) legislation that was signed in July 2019. In signing it he stated,
“The environment and climate change are the most critically important policy priorities we face. They literally will determine the future – or the lack thereof. Even in today’s chaos of political pandering and hyperbole there are still facts, data and evidence – and climate change is an undeniable scientific fact. But cries for a new green movement are hollow political rhetoric if not combined with aggressive goals and a realistic plan on how to achieve them. With this agreement, New York will … lead the way forward, to govern with vision and intelligence, to set a new standard, and to match our words with action...”
Hydraulic fracking of methane had already been banned in New York State, and coal-powered electricity has been cut to only 0.5% of all energy produced in New York. Unfortunately, the fracking ban has not yet stopped the natural gas companies from supplying methane through pipelines from Pennsylvania, which is being devastated by the environmental degradation that fracking causes.
One Adirondack town that has been trying for 37 years to take action against climate change is Indian Lake in Hamilton County. Known as the Whitewater Capital of New York State, the town of Indian Lake seriously considered and developed a business plan for the construction and operation of a hydroelectric power plant on the Indian Lake dam in 1982, and again in 2007. The dam holds the headwaters of the Indian River, a major tributary of the Hudson River, and would generate between 3.2 and 5.7 million Kw-hrs/year of carbon-free electricity (depending on what type of generator was used) due to its height of 37 feet and average flow rate of 571 cubic feet per second. Both times the hydropower industry was eager to build a generator on the Indian Lake dam (and in 2007 would have included the Lake Abanakee dam six miles downstream, adding another 20% of energy to the total output) that would have served the needs of the entire county while generating hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of clean electricity annually to the energy grid.
Most recently, the Indian Lake Association, a modest grassroots group of approximately one hundred Indian Lake homeowners, is once again encouraging the construction of a hydroelectric power plant at one (or preferably both) dams. The previous effort launched in 2006 was supported by the Indian Lake town government, the Indian Lake and Abanakee Lake Homeowners Associations, the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the Hudson River/Black River Regulating District (HRBRRD) and New York State Senator Betty Little. In 2006, Senator Little provided grant money that funded complete engineering and surveying studies by Erie Boulevard Hydropower Company of Watertown NY for construction of a generator on the Indian Lake dam, and the smaller Abanakee Lake dam six miles downstream at the headwaters of the Indian River. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a preliminary permit in 2007. Unfortunately, a protracted legal battle ensued with the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks with the support of Trout Unlimited and the Adirondack Mountain Club, based on their assertion that the New York State Constitution forbade such a project on a dam within the Adirondack Park Blue Line, despite the presence of other dams in the park with hydroelectric generators.
A proposed amendment to the state constitution was drafted, and was supported by the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks to overcome the alleged legal objections. Since that would require a statewide referendum during two successive election days two years apart, the project dragged out to the point that the FERC permit was revoked, killing the project in 2008. Apparently, the fear of allowing this zero-carbon power plant to be built on an existing dam within the Blue Line was greater than the fear that current CO2 emission rates must be curtailed be every reasonable means possible, as soon as possible. World authorities on the acceleration rate and impact of climate change such as the Adirondacks’ own Bill McKibben argue convincingly that we passed that point years ago:
Hydropower has been used since ancient times to grind flour and perform other tasks. By 1886 there were 45 hydroelectric power stations in the U.S. and Canada; and by 1889 there were 200 in the U.S. alone. The United States currently has over 2,000 hydroelectric power stations that supply 6.4% of its total electrical production output, which is 49% of its renewable electricity. In 2015 hydropower generated 16.6% of the world’s total electricity and 70% of all renewable electricity. Hydropower is produced in 150 countries, with the Asia-Pacific region generated 32 percent of global hydropower in 2010. China is the largest hydroelectricity producer, with 721 terawatt-hours of production in 2010, representing around 17 percent of domestic electricity use. Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Paraguay, Austria, Switzerland, Venezuela, and several other countries have a majority of the internal electric energy production from hydroelectric power. Paraguay produces 100% of its electricity from hydroelectric dams and exports 90% of its production to Brazil and to Argentina. Norway produces 96% of its electricity from hydroelectric sources… The cost of hydroelectricity is relatively low, making it a competitive source of renewable electricity. The hydro station consumes no water, unlike coal or gas plants. The typical cost of electricity from a hydro station larger than 10 megawatts is 3 to 5 U.S. cents per kilowatt hour. With a dam and reservoir, it is also a flexible source of electricity, since the amount produced by the station can be varied up or down very rapidly (as little as a few seconds) to adapt to changing energy demands. Once a hydroelectric complex is constructed, the project produces no direct waste, and in many cases it has a considerably lower output level of greenhouse gases than fossil fuel powered energy plants. The technical potential for hydropower development around the world is much greater than the actual production: the percent of potential hydropower capacity that has not been developed is 71% in Europe, 75% in North America, 79% in South America, 95% in Africa, 95% in the Middle East, and 82% in Asia-Pacific. Due to the political realities of new reservoirs in western countries, economic limitations in the third world and the lack of a transmission system in undeveloped areas, perhaps 25% of the remaining technically exploitable potential can be developed before 2050.
The main cost of constructing a hydroelectric plant is building a dam in which to house the generator. The Indian Lake dam is in good condition despite its age and is due for routine reinforcing maintenance work in 2023 through the HRBRRD. The dam has already been shown by engineering studies to be easily adaptable to a hydroelectric plant. The Abanakee dam, which was built in 1950, has also been deemed suitable. Building a hydroelectric generator into these two dams would not affect the Forest Preserve- No trees would be cut, no new dams would be created, no new lands would be flooded, no change in the outflow of the dam would be necessary, and no source of air or water pollution would be created.
The environmentalists’ previous opposition to altering the dam was, they felt, enshrined in Article 14 of the New York State Constitution that was passed on January 1, 1895. It states:
“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.”
The present dam on Indian Lake was nonetheless built in 1898, after a deed was created for that purpose in 1897, two years after Article 14 was created. That deed included the statement:
…excepting and reserving to the party of the first part, its successors or assigns the right perpetually to maintain, use, control and operate the dam now, as well as such as may hereafter be raised, constructed, repaired or improved, at the outlet of Indian Lake, and also such other dam or dams as may be constructed across the Indian River, lower down said river (whether located on the above-described land or not).
It should be remembered that the dam, having been originally created in 1845, already existed before Article 14 came into existence. It was therefore not “wild forest land” in 1895 or 1897, and the above wording of the deed indicates that the dam itself was not to be included in the sale to the state- it remained the private property of the Indian Lake Company until its ownership was transferred to the HRBRRD in 1989. And having been built in its present form 122 years ago, it should be able to be “repaired or improved” as needed as the 1897 deed stipulates. Several times since its construction, the dam has in fact been repaired and will be again soon. It should follow that modifying the dam to allow the production of clean hydroelectric power would certainly be considered an “improvement”. The dam itself is not “forest land’; it is a stone and mortar structure that was originally constructed long before Article 14 existed. Meanwhile, the Lake Abanakee dam is on property owned by the town of Indian Lake, and therefore is not part of the forest preserve.
Recently, regional environmental groups have begun to acknowledge that Climate Change has changed their priorities, and allow that the HRBRRD has provided a powerful source of clean energy in New York State for generations. The previous idea of amending the State Constitution, allowing the Regulating District the authority to install an electricity generator in the Indian Lake dam could be supported by those groups, and by the voters of New York. That would be a game changer which could give the State the needed incentive to proceed with the project.
There is no argument that adding a hydroelectric power source to both dams in the town of Indian Lake would add reliable and valuable clean energy to the Adirondack Power grid at no risk to the environment, while creating a new revenue source for the town. It is totally consistent with the goals of the CLCPA. The political and economic issues that were once considered a deal-breaker are no longer a deal-breaker. Its time has come.
More about Daniel Way can be found at http://www.danielway.com.
Photos provided by the author