As the Mohawk Valley’s water supply became threatened last year, state and local agencies couldn’t agree whether there was a crisis, let alone how to address it. More than 1,500 pages of documents and e-mails obtained by the Observer-Dispatch tell how conflicting priorities and a misunderstanding of the Hinckley reservoir’s capacity brought the region to the brink of a water shortage.

As Hinckley Reservoir fell and the Mohawk Valley’s water supply became threatened last year, state and local agencies couldn’t agree whether there was a crisis, let alone how to address it. 

More than 1,500 pages of documents and e-mails obtained by the Observer-Dispatch tell a tale of how conflicting priorities and a misunderstanding of the reservoir’s capacity brought the region to the brink of an unprecedented water shortage. 

The results: A reservoir that dropped to within 3 feet of impeding the water supply for 130,000 area residents. An autumn ban on fishing in West Canada Creek, reduced in places to a mere trickle. 

And now a continuing state-level investigation into how the water crisis could have been allowed to happen. 

Grant Hotel owner Carl Gogats in the Herkimer County town of Russia saw his business damaged because the low water levels kept boaters away. He questions if the crisis was natural, or man-made. 


State Canal Corp. – Manages Hinckley Reservoir, which is a primary source of water for the state’s canal system. 

Mohawk Valley Water Authority – Supplies drinking water to 130,000 residents. Has sued the Canal Corp. over the state’s resistance to the authority’s plans to extend water lines into central and western Oneida County. 

State Emergency Management Office – Played a key role in pulling together state and local agencies to find a resolution to the shrinking reservoir in late September. 

State Department of Environmental Conservation – Promotes water quality and manages the state’s fishing streams, including West Canada Creek. 

Oneida County and New York state departments of Health – These agencies are charged with promoting public health, and both raised alarms in mid-September about the possible threat to the Mohawk Valley’s water supply. 

Gov. Eliot Spitzer – Has created a working group to study the Hinckley crisis and to recommend steps for improved reservoir management and better communication among agencies.

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> Click here for archived coverage
> Click here for photo galleries “Somebody’s playing a game up here with this,” Gogats said. “And what the purpose of that game is, I don’t know.” 

A team of O-D reporters reviewed hundreds of documents and conducted a few dozen interviews in recent months. Not all state agencies consented to interviews; the state Canal Corp. would answer only in writing to e-mailed questions. 

Among the O-D’s findings: 

FULL CANALS, SHRINKING RESERVOIR: The Canal Corp., which controls the reservoir, kept the Erie Canal and feeder canals brimming all summer even as Hinckley Reservoir shrank. 

Much of the summer, reservoir outflow exceeded historically recognized guidelines, records show. 

The state agency cited drought conditions as its justification for the heavy outflow, saying its chief responsibility was ensuring the canals had enough water for boat traffic. Yet a subsequent review of weather data shows drought conditions did not exist at the time those outflows occurred. 

Multiple times in late summer, the Canal Corp. was asked to change course but it refused, saying such actions weren’t warranted. 

WATER AUTHORITY MUTE: The Mohawk Valley Water Authority, hoping to expand water service to western Oneida County, downplayed concerns over the availability of the water supply for much of the summer. 

The authority was backing legislation, never passed, that would have allowed it to take nearly 30 more million gallons per day from Hinckley Reservoir. Authority officials spoke repeatedly last summer of how plentiful water is, not about potential shortages. 

As the reservoir dropped, authority leaders said the changes appeared so dramatic because of the shape of Hinckley’s basin. 

“It's essentially doing exactly what it's designed to do,” authority Executive Director Patrick Becher said of the reservoir in early August. 

It was only after the New York Power Authority, which also uses Hinckley water, began raising alarms that the water authority in mid-September made urgent requests that the Canal Corp. reduce the flow out of Hinckley. 

Yet the water authority had been publicly silent several weeks earlier on Aug. 20, when the reservoir fell below a 1,200-foot elevation level that was supposed to trigger reductions in Hinckley Reservoir outflow but did not. 

INCORRECT ASSUMPTIONS: On multiple occasions, state and regional officials examined water flow data without taking action. What many officials did not know is that the numbers they reviewed were flawed. 

Government agencies were overestimating the inflow into Hinckley Reservoir and did not fully understand the physical structure of the outflow area, some state officials said. 

In addition, the state Canal Corp. incorrectly believed the water supply could be protected at a reservoir elevation of 1,170 feet above sea level — 15 feet lower than the actual crisis level of 1,185 feet. 

“I don't think they really know how much is coming into Hinckley and also how much is really coming out of Hinckley through the 90-plus-year-old valve at any given time,” state Health Department official John Strepelis would write in a Sept. 27 e-mail. 

“Yet all this misinformation is being used to manage the water resource?” Strepelis stated in his e-mail. “It's quite interesting. I guess it's finally caught up with them.” 

All the while, local residents raised alarms that mostly went unheeded as Hinckley’s shoreline receded dozens of feet from docks, boats and beachfront property. 

Grant Hotel owner Gogats e-mailed Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s office last June because he was concerned with the low water level in the Black Creek, which runs past his restaurant and bar in the town of Russia and feeds Hinckley Reservoir. 

Low water levels put a stop to boating and destroyed the shoreline at the business, which has operated since the 1800s, Gogats said. 

“There’s no reason for this,” he said. “Absolutely none.” 

It wasn’t until mid-September that Oneida County health department staff set out to document the reservoir problem with their cameras. They found and photographed overflowing canals and weirs at a time when reservoir levels were dropping precipitously. 

Sean Clive, principal public health sanitarian of the county health department, e-mailed state agencies on Sept. 17, questioning if the Canal Corp. was purposely letting the reservoir drop because of a lawsuit between the state agency and the water authority. 

That prompted Strepelis of the state Health Department to take a closer look. 

He replied in a Sept. 20 e-mail: “Sean: something is not right here.” 

That was among the triggers that led six days later to negotiation of an unheard-of shift of water to protect the region’s drinking supply: 

* Outflow from Hinckley was cut by more than half. 

* The canal system began drawing water from Delta Lake Reservoir, and later others in the region, to preserve Hinckley. 

* West Canada Creek was allowed to flow at an extremely low level, resulting in a fishing ban. 

* Divers had to go beneath the reservoir’s surface in late September and early October to cut slits in plates blocking outflow pipes. Officials at the Canal Corp. hadn’t known the water authority had installed the plates two decades ago. 

Officials learned the reservoir, then approaching 1,188 feet in elevation, was only 3 feet away from interfering with the region’s water supply. 

Later, officials expressed consternation over the level to which Hinckley was allowed to sink. 

“There was no general drought emergency for that region of the state, or a drought warning or a lesser drought alert, but Hinckley Reservoir was very close to being dried out,” said James Tierney, the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s assistant commissioner for water resources. 

“The state agencies involved here would have very much appreciated someone ringing the alarm bell at an earlier point because that would have allowed for management practices to be put in place that would have reduced the level of the emergency,” he said. 

A working group commissioned by Gov. Eliot Spitzer is examining what went wrong and how to prevent a recurrence. 

Its final report is due March 31.