David Nightingale: Saving A Lake

May 6, 2018

In the 1970s, my wife and small sons would, some summers, drive the 15 miles or so to Tillson Lake in Ulster County, NY – which, by the way, is nowhere near the hamlet of the same name. There we could sit on the beach by the pavilion, and watch our three and six-year-olds as they waded out and practiced their swimming, eat our sandwiches and enjoy the scenic backdrop of the mountain, where, further up, is the well-known Minnewaska State Park Preserve.

Other times, when and if free, I would rooftop the Sunfish sail-boat down there, the lake being a pleasant and convenient size for unchallenging sailing.

Today, Tillson Lake is owned by NY State and is run by the Palisades Interstate Parks Commission, who, I have heard, intend to drain it. Their apparent plan is to remove the dam and let the lake revert to a stream running through meadows.

In many ways I am all for not messing with our world – our only world – but it’s not as simple as that. Lake Powell, Nevada’s Lake Meade; Indian Lake in the Adirondacks, the Ashokan – and countless other bodies of water worldwide – have been brought about by mankind. I would argue that these reservoirs, lakes and recreational bodies of water are generally beneficial to humanity and worth maintaining.

So why are the Commissioners (of the Palisades Interstate Parks Commission) taking this route? As so often, things boil down to money. The claim is that the lake’s dam needs repairing and that they can’t afford it.

Perhaps they look upon it as a question of culling. It’s a small lake, and brings them no money. Nevertheless their mandate from the state is to maintain parks and lakes for public recreation. Surely they realize how increasingly extensive the background populace in this part of the Hudson Valley is, a populace that will surely always need to fish, swim, canoe, write, paint and enjoy quietness?

If their fear is liability, I swam years ago in a large and beautiful lake in Maine, and there were no warnings or notices. Of course drownings are possible, and no-one can legislate against accidents. There are swimming holes and rivers throughout New England where there are no notices – for example the DEC’s well-maintained Onteora Lake near Kingston – pleasant for swimming, boating, walking, fishing and no lifeguards or prohibitions.

So, finally, if the money can be found for proper dam repair, I would like to see that Tillson Lake, roughly between Cragsmoor and New Paltz, does not have to revert to meadow and stream, but will remain viable as a quiet recreational lake – in perpetuity.

David Nightingale is Professor of Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz. His latest book is A Kitchen Course in Electricity and Magnetism, published by Springer, New York.

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