Water level controversy continues in Tupper Lake

Looking out the helm of “Geraldine,” Joe Sabo’s 1945 U.S. Coast Guard Whale Boat, the Bog River Falls carries water from the High Peaks to Tupper Lake. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

TUPPER LAKE — Yesterday, Labor Day, dozens of boaters were out on Tupper Lake, enjoying the sun and the waves.

The water levels, a source of controversy on the lake, have been good this summer. After an Enterprise article on low water levels in June, the levels rose again, fluctuated throughout the summer and are at a good elevation now, despite a dry summer.

There are two camps in the water level debate: boaters and lakefront owners who feel the water levels are not as high or accommodating as they have been in the past, and town Supervisor Patti Littlefield, who is herself, a boat and lakefront owner. Littlefield said the number of people who complain about the water levels on the lake are a minority.

These residents feel they are not being listened to and see Littlefield as an oppressive government figure. Littlefield feels she is being needlessly attacked and that the water level problem exists only in their heads.

Talking to boat and lakefront owners, and talking to town officials, one gets two vastly different stories.

An oversized faucet endlessly dumps water into Tupper Lake, comically commenting on the lake’s water level controversy. (Photo provided)

The years of disagreement has even spawned a sarcastic art installation: an oversized metallic faucet sticking several feet over a rock ledge, always spraying water into the lake.

Littlefield said it is a challenge to maintain the entire lake level at a height that keeps everyone safe and allows for the most use. Too high, and people’s homes will flood, like they did in 2011; too low and people’s boats will hit rocks and some parts of the lake will become inaccessible to watercraft.

The lake water is regulated by the Setting Pole Dam, which is owned by the town and operated by the Brookfield Renewable power company. It controls the flow of the Raquette River, which flows from the High Peaks Wilderness in the east, into Lake Simond, Big Tupper Lake and Raquette Pond, exiting on the south side of town.

There are two state supreme court rulings setting the lowest allowable lake elevation at 1,543 feet the maximum elevation at 1,545 feet, creating a 2-foot window between the two.

Water watchers

Joe Sabo pilots “Geraldine” and talks about his lake water level troubles. He believes the water is lower than it has been in the past, and last Labor Day could not launch because of low water. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

It was a sunny day in early July and the Tupper Lake boat launch was swamped as boaters put in for a day on the water. That day the water was high enough for Joe Sabo and Donna Knittel Tanner to take out the wooden 1945 U.S. Coast Guard Whale Boat that Sabo restored and named “Geraldine.”

Sabo said the lake level is not always so accommodating for the 26-foot boat to launch. Earlier this summer, low water levels led Sabo to submit an email he sent to Littlefield as a letter to the editor to the Tupper Lake Free Press.

His boat Geraldine came from Michigan, where it had been found, grounded in an island field with trees growing out of her hull. It was owned by a family for years until Sabo heard about it while working for Tossier Boatworks. Around a month ago, Geraldine won two awards at an antique boat show in Alexandria Bay.

Floating around on a Sunday afternoon, Sabo stopped at friends’ lake houses, pontoon boats and swimming areas. Almost all of them shared the same story: over the last few years, the lake level gets lower than it used to and they hit rocks, can’t launch or can’t access certain parts of the lake.

One or two had not noticed a change, but they lived in an area where their boat houses had a steep dropoff.

Blue Jay Campground owner Frank Scottie has a rock he uses as a measurement. He says he never used to be able to see the little hump sticking out of the water. Dave Wilbur, who lives near the campground, has a yard stick in the water to take precise measurements.

Disagreements between boat and lakefront owners and Littlefield over where the lake water level should be kept have grown over the past years, reaching a boiling point in Labor Day 2017 when, according to Sabo, the water dropped 6 inches in a week.

Sabo had guests he wanted to take on the water that day, but he was unable to launch Geraldine. At the same time, the props on Jack Ryder’s wooden Chris Craft boat at Goodman Camp on the southern end of the lake ended up buried in the sand and Bill McGinnus had a difficult time getting his pontoon boat out to his camp on County Line Island.

The next day, Sabo said he visited the dam, where the gates were opened, and met a Brookfield employee who he said told him that he takes directions from Littlefield. Brookfield would not reveal who that employee was, but issued a statement about their relationship with the town.

“Setting Pole Dam is owned by the town and operated by Brookfield Renewable,” Julie Pelletier, a manager and stakeholder relations officer at Brookfield, wrote in an email. “Using established town guidelines, Brookfield maintains the water level with regular checks to the site.”

Later, Sabo called Littlefield, and he said she told him she had the water lowered so her friends could get under Follensby bridge.

“I totally lost it when she told me that and still think it was a totally bad judgment on her part,” Sabo said. “She said that I had a good summer of boating and that other people wanted the water level lowered.”

Littlefield said she never told Sabo such a thing, that she does not control the lake water for personal or boating reasons and that she didn’t even take friends out on pontoon boats last Labor Day.

She said she has never talked with Sabo or Brookfield about Follensby Bridge and was quite surprised to hear the allegation.

“Joe Sabo assumes a lot more than he knows,” Littlefield said.

According to Brookfield officials, the company takes direction from the town based on weather events. For example, they open the gates to lower the levels a lot in the spring in preparation for the spring snow thaw, and in weeks of dry weather they keep the gates closed to hold in what water the lake has.

“Brookfield and the town work together to keep a consistent lake level,” Pelletier said. “As such, adjustments are made throughout the year, responding to the weather conditions and the current water levels.”

Sabo has pitched the idea of having a lake committee made of boat and lakefront owners, town officials and Brookfield employees to parse out the best course for Setting Pole Dam over the summers. And while Littlefield doesn’t oppose the idea, she said she already hears from an unofficial committee of Tupper Lakers who inform her of how the water levels are near them.

Littlefield said she mostly hears positive feedback from people. She said that Sabo’s issue launching Geraldine in lower water could be solved by the state Department of Environmental Conservation changing its boat launch to have a steeper dropoff.

Though their conversations have been described as “coarse” in the past, Sabo said he hopes he and Littlefield can work everything out eventually.

“I don’t want to pick a fight. I just want some control of the water level,” Sabo said.

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