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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, February 12, 2009
Perennial problem: Hilltown manure flows into city’s water source
By Zach Simeone
Every spring, the Alcove Reservoir, a source of water for the city of Albany, is at risk of being contaminated by manure, carried by snowmelt and storm water that originates on Hilltown farms.
Vito Abate, 76, owns one of those farms, on Route 411 in Westerlo. He has lived on this farm for almost 45 years. He makes $15,000 in annual profits selling Black Angus beef.
During the spring thaw, the melted snow on Abate’s property floods into his barn, where cow manure has frozen and accumulated during the chill that has just ended. That contaminated water eventually flows behind his property, where it mixes with the Silver Creek, a tributary to the Alcove Reservoir.
This problem was aggravated, Abate said, when two of his neighbors, whose properties are uphill from his, built paved driveways, which caused the snowmelt from their land to flow downhill, and onto Abate’s property, both through the culvert pipe under the road and down his driveway, he said.
“I’ve been trying to deal with this for a long time,” Abate said, “but the government’s been jerking me around, and I don’t want to be the one blamed later on,” he said.
The Albany County Department of Public Works considered diverting the water flow, by constructing paths on either side of the road that would lead the water away from the path to his barn, but Commissioner Michael Franchini said that the money isn’t there.
If the roadwork is done, the water could then flow into the 36-inch manhole next to his driveway, which would bring the water underneath the barn, and on its path to the Silver Creek.
The piece of State Health Department law that protects the water supply from contaminants was enacted in 1929, said Joe Arabski, who manages the Alcove and Basic reservoirs for the City of Albany Department of Water. Arabski is a Westerlo resident himself.
An edge of the reservoir lies in Westerlo, while the bulk of it is in the adjacent town of Coeymans.
“The violation that [Abate] has with the city of Albany and his manure storage only happens in the spring,” said Arabski. In the springtime, manure contaminating the reservoir is an issue, Arabski said, “but, after the spring, there’s no problem there.”
Gauging the severity of contaminants is “like getting a cut,” Arabski said. “If you cut an artery, it’s a big problem; if you cut a capillary it’s not a problem at all. Pollution sources further away from the supply, depending on what’s getting in there, are less of a concern. Cow manure is a concern, and it needs to be addressed. But, on a scale of one to 10, this is a nagging two or three that’s always there in the spring,” he said.
“During certain times of year, no matter where you put manure, it’s going to make it downstream,” Arabski added. What it really comes down to, he said, is using the best management practices possible.
Arabski got involved with the New York State Farm Bureau, the Albany County Soil and Water Conservation District, and Cornell Cooperative Extension, to try to solve the problem on Abate’s farm.
“So, we did a walkthrough early last year,” Arabski said, “and saw some drainage issues. They were going to draw up a farm management plan for Mr. Abate, and there were all kinds of questions about moving watercourses.”
This was not the first attempt at changing Abate’s management practices.
A farm management plan was developed for Abate by the Soil and Water Conservation District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service in the late 1980s, said Field Manager Joseph Slezak of the Conservation District.
“The plan developed for [Abate’s] farm outlines crop management, manure allocation, maybe even rotational grazing, and takes into account the farm headquarters,” Slezak said. “So, things he could change might include putting roof gutters on his farm, or a manure storage system.”
Once a plan is developed, the farmer selects which pieces he wants to implement. Conservation plans are based on farmer cooperation; they are not mandated, said Slezak.
“The district or NRCS would then try to find funding sources for the farmer,” because, since the farmer is volunteering to implement the plan, the government is not required to fund the project, said Slezak. “Often, cost sharing is available,” he said.
“So, back in the ’80s, this was developed and he implemented certain practices, though I’m not at liberty to say which practices,” as this was a signed document between Abate and the involved agencies, Slezak said.
“One of [the implemented practices] was to take the water from the culvert and put it through a grass waterway, or a ditch, which would take the water through his farmstead in a confined manner, but he was supposed to maintain it, because, obviously, things deteriorate,” said Slezak. “But, he should have put up a fence to keep the cattle out of the waterway, and he should not have driven through it with his tractor, which both deteriorated the waterway.”
The real issue here, Slezak said, is maintenance.
“[Abate] is convinced that it won’t work because it didn’t work the last time, Slezak said. “This is what happens with all areas of the country, really. You have a farmer who’s been [farming] for 40 years, and they know something didn’t work one time, but they don’t remember why it didn’t work. This is the cheapest solution, and it will work if it’s used as designed,” he said.
Of this waterway, Abate said, “It’s useless this time of the year because it’s all filled in by snow and ice. Plus, since the volume of the water got larger, because of my neighbors [adding to the water flow], it jumps the ditch,” he said. “They tell me the ditch should just be dug again, but deeper this time. Well, no matter how deep that ditch is, it’s just going to fill in with snow and ice.”
Slezak insists that snow and ice would be of no concern if the waterway were made deep enough.
The Albany County Department of Public Works became involved last year because Abate’s farm is on a county road, said Commissioner Franchini.
“The Farm Bureau, Soil and Water, and Mr. Abate wanted to know if we could divert the water from going onto his property,” said Franchini. What we said was that we don’t normally change storm-water flow, especially flow that’s part of a natural watercourse that’s existed for decades, because, when you change storm-water flow, you usually impact somebody else,” he said.
“So, we agreed to look at ways to divert the water down the county right of way, but it became very expensive,” Franchini said.
To build a curb that would divert the water down the property across the street from Abate’s farm would cost about $80,000, including materials, equipment, and labor by the public works department, while diverting the water along Abate’s property, would cost about $50,000, said Franchini.
“We looked to the Soil and Water Conservation District and Farm Bureau to see if they could contribute money, but, right now, the money just doesn’t exist to divert that storm water,” he said. “We also sent a letter to the [Department of Environmental Conservation] for other sources of funding, but they said there weren’t any that we hadn’t already looked into.”
Said Arabski of diverting the water flow, “Mr. Abate thinks that all we’ve got to do is move a stream around, but that’s an extremely expensive proposition. I could go down there every spring and say, ‘Vito, you’re in violation of our regulations,’ but I can’t make him stop it. I can only forward it to the Albany County Health Department,” he said.
“What I do for the city of Albany is I go out looking for problems with the water,” said Arabski. “Mr. Abate has an old farm that has been there since before the Alcove Reservoir was built, and the city of Albany had issues with how he’s dealt with some of his manure. It’s kind of located in a wet area,” he said.
The Alcove Reservoir was built in the 1920s, and became operational in 1932, Arabski said. Now, a dedicated security patrol keeps a close eye on the reservoir and routinely tests the water by “upstream and downstream sampling,” said Arabski.
With cow manure, Arabski said, “probably the biggest problems are nitrogen and phosphorus, which promote plant and algae growth. Nobody wants a water body to be loaded with plants and algae, which cause for organic matter to get in the water,” he said.
Taste and odor could also be affected, he said.
Another hazard associated with manure is the spread of bacteria, “which is normally removed by water treatment,” Arabski said. “Chlorination, UV filtration we have both on our water system. The city of Albany has different chemicals that consolidate organic matter and try to remove it as [the water is] filtered. We have excellent quality water, partially because of our filtration system, but [the manure] is something that isn’t acceptable. So, the question now is, who should pay for the changing of his farming style?”
The bottom line is that Abate “needs to tweak his operation,” Arabski said. “The only way this is going to be solved is with a compromise, and, unless he changes the way he does business, it will be a problem.”
“The water that comes from the other side of the road is not my problem,” Abate concluded. “It’s their water, so I expect that they should be able, one way or another, to divert that water. It doesn’t belong on this side of the road anyway.” He said that his attorney is working on this, and is contacting the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
“Everyone always tries to make the farmer look like the culprit,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”