Dam it!

Tupper Lakers disagree over low lake level

Frank Scotti, who owns the Blue Jay Campground in Tupper Lake, stands in Big Tupper Lake and points out the shoreline. Scotti says the water used to rise up to the greenery, but now it stays low, keeping him from renting dock space. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

TUPPER LAKE — Tempers are rising in this town as the water levels in Big Tupper Lake are not.

The lake water is regulated by the Setting Pole Dam on the Raquette River, which is owned by the town and operated by the Brookfield Renewable power company.

The Raquette River flows from the High Peaks Wilderness to the east, into Lake Simond, Big Tupper Lake and Raquette Pond, exiting on the south side of town.

A call to the Enterprise, a letter to the Tupper Lake Free Press and a message left on town Supervisor Patti Littlefield’s home phone within the last week all bore the same complaint: the water in the lake is too low.

According to Frank Scotti, who owns the Blue Jay Campground on the south end of town, people are hitting boat props on rocks, and he can’t rent out certain dock spaces and lakefront property owners can’t get their boats into their boat houses.

Scotti has 11 docks that sit empty because the water is too low for his campers to park a boat there, and he is missing out on $450 on each one annually, adding up to about $5,000. He said the water started dropping low around 15 years ago, during construction on the dam’s spillway.

Ed Donnelly, a four-year Tupper Lake resident, hit his engine’s front skeg on an underwater rock formation while driving around a favorite fishing spot on Lake Simond last week. He has fished there before and was using sonar, but the low water caused his motor to hit, without damage.

At the campground on Tuesday, Scotti pointed to a rock jutting out of the water at the end of one of his docks. “I grew up here all my life. I’m 71 years old; that was never visible,” he said.

In 1966, state Supreme Court Justice Robert Main Sr. ruled that the lake level shall not be lowered below 1,543 feet in elevation in a lawsuit filed by Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation against the town of Altamont. Though neither entity exist anymore, the rule still stands, and both the town and Brookfield say they honor it.

A 1911 court ruling by state Supreme Court Justice Charles C. VanKirk in the case of Edward Litchfield suing a litany of lumber companies also capped the maximum height for the lake at 1,545 feet, creating a 2-foot window between the two.

Scotti said the water has been higher than it was on Tuesday, evidenced by the five or so feet of dirt, leaves and driftwood separating the water from a green shoreline.

The water on Thursday was measured at the Setting Pole Dam one notch above zero, the median between the two acceptable ranges for the water level. Brookfield takes daily measurements at the dam, arriving first thing in the morning to check the water levels.

Joe Sabo, who owns a 26-foot 1945 U.S. Coast Guard Whale Boat that he rebuilt in the early 2000s and bestowed the name “Geraldine” has had problems with the lake levels for years, as his wooden boat has a hull that sits low in the water. In fact, the very first post on his Facebook page in 2009 shows a friend standing on the Setting Pole Dam and joking about “fixing the water level.”

Sabo sent a letter to the editor to the Tupper Lake Free Press last week, copying an email sent to Littlefield, in which he told her he had visited the dam and seen two of the control gates “fully wide open.”

“In our conversation on the phone today, you told me the gates were closed and have been closed for 10 days,” Sabo writes in his letter.

Littlefield said Sabo had been very coarse over the phone and misinterpreted what she said.

“When Joe called me I said, ‘The last I heard from Brookfield was all the gates were closed,'” Littlefield said. “I have not been out there in a week.”

Littlefield said after her call with Sabo she called Brookfield and asked them to close the gates, which she said have now been closed since June 9.

Brookfield has full control over the dam, but according to Andy Davis, director of stakeholder relations, weak inflows from streams and mountain melt in the 2018 season caused the lake level to be lower than usual.

“We have less water coming into the lake than we’ve had in years,” Davis said, saying the inflows are now flowing at 400 cubic feet per second, compared to the average 1,340 CFS.

“I was very involved in this issue about two years ago when everyone was concerned about a high water level in Tupper Lake, so this is an issue with Setting Pole Dam and with the watershed as a whole that kind of ebbs and flows,” Davis said.

Davis said he has not heard public complaints about the water level this year yet.

Littlefield said that sometimes people living on the Raquette River want the water lower so they can get pontoon boats under Follensby Bridge to the lake.

“It’s really a big dance we do every year to please everybody,” Littlefield said.

Regarding the shoreline, she said the dirt separating the water from the greenery may be a sign of high water levels in the melting season.

“That was probably during the spring when the water was so high for a couple weeks,” Littlefield said. “I think of the water level every day because I actually live on the water. It’s certainly something we will be glad to discuss with Brookfield.”