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Preserving the Croton River Gorge: A Flashback and Look Ahead

August 13, 2006

In a world where more is being wrecked than saved, we can at least locally reverse the trend, to the benefit of the river, ourselves, and those who follow after.” — Robert Boyle

Imagine a Republican president advocating bold new environmental legislation to protect thousands of square miles of wetlands, forests, estuaries, and prairies.

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Imagine a bi-partisan Congress voting in favor of landmark new standards for cleaner air and water. Imagine a nationwide laboratory of local environmental initiatives that build on this momentum from the grass roots to the corridors of power. Imagine an energy crisis unfolding with spiraling oil prices amidst unrest in the Middle East.

Everything described above did happen…in 1972. Richard Nixon was president. The nation suffered a severe energy shortfall with cars lined up around the block for rations of gasoline, while the Mideast oil powers exercised the power of their near monopoly on ‘black gold.’

Meanwhile, the first Earth Days were held amidst the student activism fueled by protests over Vietnam War. The Congress passed and Nixon signed into law the landmark bills that created the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

Back here in New York, Hudson River fisherman banded together to defeat the Storm King proposal that would have leveled that mountaintop for the sake of a few kilowatts of surplus electricity. And here in Croton, a handful of river lovers prepared a plan to preserve the Croton River.

In Croton in 1972, Bob Boyle typed the simple words that open this letter in his Foreword to a report with a long, but simple title, “Use and Preservation Study for the Lower Croton River.” That year, the five villages and towns, led by Croton, announced “The Croton River Compact.”

This plan called for cooperation among the five villages and towns who share the Croton River from the Cornell Dam to the Hudson River: the Towns of Cortlandt, Yorktown, New Castle, and Ossining and the incorporated Villages of Croton-on-Hudson and Ossining.

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The 1972 Croton River Compact was a response to an environmental disaster. During the 1960’s property owners in the Black Rock section of the river operated a dredging operation that removed sand and gravel aggregates from the riverbed. Up to 100 feet deep, these deposits were trucked to various locations for sale as roadbed and paving materials. During this operation fine silt from the deposits were released down stream in huge quantities, suffocating trout and other fish along with other aquatic life that these fish depend on for survival.

Though only three and one half miles long from the Dam to bay and estuary on the Hudson, the Croton River gorge contains two entirely distinct ecosystems. For about two and one half miles—in the “upper Croton River”—freshwater flows downriver from the Croton Dam over and around immense boulders, through placid pools, under the oldest steel bridge in Westchester County.

The river tumbles down runs past Firemen’s Island to meet brackish Hudson inflows that reach about one mile upstream from the railroad trestle bridge across the its mouth. Mayo’s Landing and Paradise Island lie within this upper reaches of this tide influenced section. The brackish inflows—in the “lower Croton River”—intrude every twelve hours on an incoming tide. This tidal action supports a thriving spawning and nursery area for Atlantic Ocean ocean-run species in this broad part of the river. Striped bass, shad, and herring all thrive along the gravel-strewn streambed today. This brackish water is its “chicken broth” that nurtures all the tiny flora and fauna at the bottom of the estuary’s food chain.

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New York State, Westchester County and some of the surrounding municipalities have taken proactive steps to protecting this resource. These steps have included the state’s designation of a Croton Gorge Unique Area, the securing from New York City of a constant water flow over Croton Dam to maintain a minimum water level in the river and Croton’s designation of some of the Village’s land along the river as parkland, thus avoiding development or another dredging operation.

Initiated by Croton residents including Robert Boyle and Joel Gingold, among others, the original Compact included numerous specific recommendations. Yet, thirty-five years after the landmark year of 1972, most of the original Compact’s recommendations remain unimplemented: inventories of land owners and land use policies, a multi-use facility for Mayo’s Landing and Paradise Island, a concerted effort to obtain conservation easements along the gorge’s shoreline, a public access point on the Ossining side between Paradise Island and the Route 9 bridge.

A few of the Compact’s suggestions have come to pass. Principally, a steady flow of water over the Dam now ensures a measure of shelter and food for the aquatic insects and fish and birds the prey on them. Public hiking trails have been established on both sides of the river gorge. Croton’s Silver Lake beach has been steadily improved for swimming. And, as of this past month, regular police boat presence has reinforced positive behavior by river users.

With the ever increasing pressure for development that stems from the rising value of properties in the Croton watershed, a new compact agreement between municipalities along the Croton River to enact coherent and mutually consistent regulations for its protection is now long overdue.

— Ann Gallelli, Charlie Kane, Leo Wiegman
Trustees, Village of Croton-on-Hudson

P.S. Can anyone enlighten us on how Croton’s municipal swimming beach on the river, “Silver Lake,” got its name?


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