|Residents in favor of public access to the Jerome Park Reservoir filled Vladeck Hall at Amalgamated Houses last Thursday for a public hearing organized by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. (Photo: David Greene)|
For years, the DEP has cited security concerns for the reason the public has been kept outside of the two security fences surrounding the reservoir (a wide path exists between the fences). And for years residents have said that access and security are both possible and point to former commissioner Christopher Ward's promise in 2004 to create a track around the reservoir similar to the one that rings around the Central Park Reservoir.
Mark Lanaghan of the DEP said his agency attended the hearing to hear from the public. “We are open to exploring public access but we don’t know what you want,” he said, as community members groaned and some even laughed out loud.
“The DEP has known the interests of the community for quite some time now,” Councilman Oliver Koppell responded.
“The DEP’s disdain and contempt is historic,” Ed Yaker of Jerome Park Conservancy Board explained. “We were fenced off from the reservoir long before 9/11. And the deal was made in 2004, what has changed in our security concerns since then?”
After the release of the DEP report in March frustrated members of the Croton Facility Monitoring Committee (FMC) turned to the borough president. In May, Diaz held a press conference to demand better public access to the reservoir's perimeter.
“The DEP has spent so much money to say so little,” Father Richard Gorman, Chairman of Community Board 12 and a member of the FMC said last night. “Their report is 13 pages with pictures! No offense, but my buddies in college used to get together after Monday night football, throw back a few beers and write term papers longer than that!” he said, eliciting more laughter and applause.
Bob Bender of Community Board 8, also outraged with the proposal, asked why the public isn’t given access now. “What better time is there than now when there is no water in the reservoir?” he asked as audience members cheered.
“We’ve had access before and we didn’t contaminate it or destroy it or kill anyone in it,” said Al Chapman of the Kingsbridge Heights Neighborhood Improvement Association.
While many of those who spoke have long been involved in the filtration plant and reservoir access issues, there were also some new voices. One woman who just moved from Westchester said she can’t understand why Bronxites don’t have the same access to the reservoirs that people in Westchester did.
In fact, many feel that the Bronx is being unfairly discriminated against, “If it’s good enough for Central Park, it’s good enough for the Bronx,” State Senator Gustavo Rivera said at Diaz’s press conference in May.
“We’re tired of being treated as second class citizens!” Chapman said.
DEP Deputy Commissioner Jim Roberts said the Central Park comparisons don’t hold water. “There are a few differences that need to be understood. Central Park is not used for drinking water,” he said. “Same thing with Silver Lake in Staten Island, we do not drink their water. The Jerome Park Reservoir will always be used as a potable supply of drinking water.”
Anne Marie Garti, also of the Jerome Park Conservancy, explained that “the Central Park Reservoir has been around since the 1860s and there have been tons of people around it and using it for years. To say that it isn’t in operation now is just missing the point.”
Robert Kornfeld Jr. of the Historic Districts Council also pointed out that in Manhattan the “visual inaccessibility of the high fences would never be tolerated.”
And as far as comparisons to upstate, Roberts said that reservoirs in other parts of the sate are located in more of a “protected environment.” [A brief side note: Growing up in upstate New York, I can tell you that on any given summer night, you could find swarms high school students skinny dipping in the reservoir; not sure if I would use “protected” to describe the waters.]
Lanaghan explained that the March 2011 report takes the position that “public access is not feasible until after construction which should be in 2013.” The three days of access is part of the DEP’s attempt to “outline an access program.”
“We want to know what kind of activities and times of day are desired by the community,” Lanaghan said.
In terms of activities, Yaker explained how, at one point in time, the reservoir was used as an education facility and teachers were able to take their students down to the reservoir to learn about nature.
Roberts claims that before the DEP can “contemplate access” there are “repairs that need to be made.” Roberts says that because the road next to the reservoir is too narrow and full of potholes it be would dangerous for pedestrians. He adds that there is no money in the budget to fix these simple repairs.
Kevin McBride, head of security for the DEP, who has spent 30 years in the NYPD, adds that unlimited access to the reservoir would be “difficult.” He says that currently there are fences, cameras, and police patrols in place near the reservoir. In addition, everyone who enters the premises has passed a background check. “Even the construction workers,” he said.
“With more access, the risk profile changes and the amount of security needed changes,” he says. “Right now, it’s a hard target,” he added. “It’s not that I’m afraid people in the Bronx would do something, its people outside the city or even the country that would put the reservoir on their target list.”
“We’re not saying there shouldn’t be security measures,” Councilman Oliver Koppell said. “But there can be access with security.”