Awaiting a Tragedy in Mount Vernon and Surrounding Communities
MOUNT VERNON, NY -- In response to articles published by The Journal News, Westchester County Press and Black Westchester, I visited the Lake Isle Dam over this past weekend to see first-hand potential consequences a dam failure could pose on Mount Vernon and surrounding communities. After reading many recently published articles about the issue and studying the Dam Safety Inspection Report prepared by Mott MacDonald for the city of New Rochelle, it became evident that this is a topic I needed to address. According to published reports, the dam, built in 1894, has had little maintenance work performed in over four decades. While there are disagreements over who owns the dam, 190 million gallons of water from the lake could spill onto the Hutchinson River Parkway into Mount Vernon and other areas if the dam fails.
By way of background, the dam was built to provide drinking water for New Rochelle residents, but this ended decades ago. Now it is used for recreational purposes by adjacent homeowners in Eastchester and New Rochelle, and by owners of townhomes and co-ops that reside along the lake’s perimeter. However, the dam’s masonry structure has had little maintenance throughout its lifespan and nonexistent maintenance in the last 40 years. In 1979, the Army Corps of Engineers prepared a Phase I National Dam Safety Program Inspection Report and found an unacceptable safety factor for overtopping conditions. In 2007, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) detailed a comprehensive plan to repair the dam, but the responsible communities did not comply. As such, the DEC initiated a lawsuit in 2018 against the town of Eastchester, the village of Scarsdale, and the city of New Rochelle to bring the dam into compliance. About eight weeks ago, DEC expanded the lawsuit to include the county of Westchester and homeowners in Eastchester and New Rochelle living around the lake.
At issue in this dispute is who owns the property. The dam is considered an “orphaned dam” meaning that it does not have an owner. The last owner was 138 Block, Corp., but the company dissolved and the city of New Rochelle took ownership of the portion of the dam located within its boundaries for nonpayment of taxes. Conversely, Eastchester chose not to foreclose on the parts of the property located within its political subdivision. Nevertheless, according to laws set forth by New York State, any entity that owns, constructs, or uses the dam is considered an owner. Based upon this legal definition, New York State has identified the municipalities referenced and the surrounding property owners as the dam owners. As such, they are responsible for the dam’s repair and regular maintenance.
The Dam Safety Inspection Report provides a description of the project and details of its visual inspection performed on December 10, 2019. The report lists several concerns; I highlight three: 1) The dam’s narrow spillway that is inadequate to allow waters to flow from a Probable Maximum Flood; 2) The owners have not implemented an Enhanced Dam Safety Program and; 3) The Inspection & Maintenance Plan on file with the DEC was/is not followed.
Furthermore, the dam has been identified as a Class C dam, meaning that there will be loss of life and catastrophic economic and property damage if the dam fails. If this occurs, the Flood Inundation Study shows waters would spill onto the Hutchinson River Parkway and any cars travelling northbound and southbound could be swept up by rushing waters. Also at risk are homes and properties along the Hutchinson River Parkway in New Rochelle, Mount Vernon, Pelham, and the Bronx. Specifically, houses by the Hutchinson River south of Nature Study Woods and many blocks south of Willow and Mayflower avenues in New Rochelle would be devastated. And Mount Vernon would be hard hit with floodwaters rushing towards Mount Vernon High School and the surrounding area. The Chester Heights and Oakwood Heights neighborhoods of the city could also be underwater. Moreoever, floodwaters would extend towards the MetroNorth Railroad tracks. These are urban and densely-populated areas that could potentially be underwater if a heavy rainfall or climate event weaken the dam. While the loss of life and property damage can be catastrophic events, contamination and disease are other adverse factors that can negatively impact residents throughout and beyond the flood inundation area.
Undoubtedly, something must happen to this dam. Repair costs to mitigate any impact on a potential dam failure can range from $3 million to $20 million. There are three primary options: (a) Drain the lake and allow a natural ecosystem to replace it. (b) Lower the waters in the lake to allow for a full engineering study. (c) Repair the dam and bring it to current engineering standards for continued use. One of the questions to ask is, “Who would pay for the repairs and continued maintenance?” Some say Westchester County, New York State, and the federal government must pay to fix the dam. If public funds repair and maintain the dam then the lake will become a ‘public’ space for all residents.
When considering the possible options and the lack of maintenance to the dam, I remember the levees that failed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. We know that about 1,500 people died during the hurricane. Many perished as a consequence when the levees built to protect the city from floodwaters failed. They failed because of erroneous and outdated engineering practices and general negligence.
Until recently, many southeastern Westchester County residents living near the dam were unaware of its potential for destruction. Even if the dam is repaired, brought to current standards, undergoes regular inspections and maintenance, impacted residents have little trust that anyone will maintain activities to keep them safe for the next 40-years. The best option for these south stream residents is to drain the lake. Preserve and relocate wetland species, and allow a natural ecosystem to develop. Let’s not face this problem again; it’s best to eliminate it.
CALL TO ACTION:
I am asking residents in the flood emergency inundation to call their state, county, and local officials. Tell them to allocate $3M to drain the dam.
Lauren S. Carter is a parent, planner, and professional who resides in Mount Vernon. She is a candidate for Mount Vernon City Council who is passionate about Mount Vernon. Her purpose is to improve the quality of life for all, and she has a plan to get it done. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-297-8088.