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Citing safety concerns over the 143-year-old Passaic (NJ) River dam, federal officials have ordered the water behind it taken down by 2 feet this summer. Eventually, they want the stone dam to be permanently lowered.
Dundee Lake, the pool behind the 20-foot tall dam, is a water source for both Marcal Paper Mills Inc. and Garden State Paper. The mills say lowering it would cost them dearly - especially Garden State, which is struggling to reopen its Garfield plant after the bankruptcy of its infamous owner, Enron.
Environmentalists say Dundee Lake could be an emergency water source this year if drought problems continue. Shrinking it makes even less sense during the state's worst water crisis in decades.
"It amazes me that no one is saying, 'Hey, we have a drought condition. What happens during this summer?" said Nick Marcalus, whose family-owned paper-products giant employs 1,000 people in Elmwood Park, upstream from the dam. "This is going to happen, and after it happens, I think a lot of people are going to be sorry that they didn't have more understanding of what the impact is."
Federal and state agencies consider the aging dam a "high hazard" that needs to be fixed soon. A 1997 federal report questioned the dam's "stability" and noted that a spillway meant to release excess water was undersized, raising the risk of flooding on Route 21 or in surrounding communities. A 2001 follow-up inspection found the problems remained, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
United Water, the Bergen County water supplier that co-owns the dam, says there's no immediate danger of the dam collapsing. But a letter last week from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that ordered the lowering, warned that the structure was "inadequate" even under normal conditions.
The order to fix the dam comes as state officials have complained about leaks, broken pumps and other problems throughout the state's water supply infrastructure as New Jersey battles its worst water crisis in decades.
While Dundee Lake probably wouldn't be used for drinking water, in a pinch it could supply industries or firefighters, some say. The state's Water Supply Advisory Council - a panel of environmentalists, water suppliers, and other experts -added its concerns on Friday, urging that the lowering be delayed until after the current drought.
Marcal, meanwhile, says it would need to spend $400,000 to $700,000 to reconfigure a pipeline that dips into the river, if the lake is lowered. Garden State Paper says it's in more dire straits. The company closed last fall after Enron's collapse, taking 250 jobs with it. Lowering the dam would destroy its water supply and hamstring any hopes of reopening, city officials said.
"We're just trying to do everything in our power to get Garden State Paper up and running again," Mayor Frank Calandriello said. "Lowering Dundee Dam couldn't come at a worse time."
The federal energy commission had ordered the drawdown to begin by April 23. But Enron has sought a delay in bankruptcy court, arguing that the project could jeopardize the possible sale of Garden State to an as-yet-unnamed buyer.
As a result, the deadline was extended by a month. But it will be the last delay, the energy agency warned in a memo last week. It regulates Dundee Dam because the dam once generated electricity.
United Water, which proposed the lowering and manages the dam, says it's seeking a solution that harms no one. But the federal orders leave it little choice, spokesman Kevin Doell said.
"We understand the issues with regard to the economics of Marcal," Doell said last week. "Naturally, those issues of cost also apply to both water companies and their customers in terms of looking for a responsible way for taking care of the problem."
The utility owns the dam with its fellow water supplier, the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission. United Water initially hoped to finish lowering the water by Sept. 30. The dam itself would be lowered 2 feet sometime after that.
Older than Garfield itself, the Dundee Dam curves 450 feet across the Passaic to the far shore in Clifton, near a historic spot where British forces forded the river in pursuit of retreating Colonial troops in 1776.
When New Jersey Gov. William Newell laid the dam's cornerstone in 1859, observers called it one of the state's manmade wonders.