Hillsdale set to release study mapping aquifers

HILLSDALE–The popular slogan advises people to “Think Globally, Act Locally.” And with the international Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development estimating that by 2030, nearly half of the world’s population will inhabit areas with severe water stress, Hillsdale has taken that call to action seriously.

The town’s Natural Resources Committee initiated the call for an aquifer study in 2008, and the Comprehensive Plan Review Committee obtained the necessary grants. That study, A Groundwater Resources Study and Protection Plan, has now been completed by Steven Winkley of the non-profit New York Rural Water Association, and he will present it to the public at 7 p.m. Monday, March 1, at the United Methodist Church at the intersection of Routes 22 and 23.

A network of aquifers underneath Hillsdale provides all the drinking water for the town, but until now, the size, location and flow of these groundwater reservoirs were largely unknown. Gretchen Stevens, chairwoman of the Natural Resources Committee, hopes many residents will attend the March 1 meeting “to learn about the groundwater resources in the town which all of us depend on for our drinking water.” She has also invited officials from the county, the town and other towns that do not yet have an aquifer study.

“Water is the new oil,” said Mr. Winkley, who has conducted similar studies all over Columbia County. “I’ve been saying that for many years. It definitely is an important issue that seems like many towns in the county are recognizing as they plan for the future, that water issues are big things.”

His year-long effort for Hillsdale, which cost just under $7,500, was funded by the town, grants from Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation and Hudson River Valley Greenway.

“It is original work in the maps that were prepared. The data and sources for those maps were already collected from, for example, water well and other records. We compiled, plotted and interpreted the results,” he said. Potential aquifer areas and their yields are inferred from those results, and the plan also includes specific proposals for preserving the town’s water supply.

“One thing he has proposed which will be very useful to us is an aquifer overlay district map that we could incorporate into our comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance,” said Ms. Stevens. The town already has a law to safeguard aquifers but until now lacked the necessary maps to actually identify them. “We’ve been wanting to fill in this part of the planning for a long time,” she said.

Mr. Winkley said water conditions in Hillsdale vary but the study does identify a particular aquifer area that feeds most of the higher yielding wells. “So they do have a resource there that would warrant protection,” he said.

Ms. Stevens sees that aquifer identification as an invaluable component for sensible planning. “We discovered where the big supplies of groundwater in the town are located,” she said. “One that runs in a broad band up along the Route 22 corridor from the hamlet up through North Hillsdale is the largest in the area. Others are along the Green River in the northeastern part of town and up in the Harlemville area.”

This new knowledge could directly inform current zoning law, because the current law calls for lot sizes of at least three acres in most of the non-hamlet areas of the town, a requirement Ms. Stevens said may be “inadequate to protect the groundwater resources.” The groundwater yield might be exceeded if the town were to build out to that kind of density in certain areas.

Mr. Winkley recommends increasing the minimum residential lot size to five acres. Commercial zoning is generally not allowed outside the hamlet.

He said the March 1 presentation will provide “a building up of a knowledge of groundwater conditions, a fundamental understanding of what groundwater is, and highlight the typical conditions in town areas that are more sensitive than others, so that everyone comes away from the meeting with a better understanding of where their water comes from.”

Ms. Stevens cites the importance of Mr. Winkley’s work in spotting potential weak spots in the aquifer. “He identified parts of the town where groundwater supplies might be most threatened by aboveground uses due to the nature of the bedrock geology and the material deposited over the bedrock, places where contamination could move very quickly into the groundwater, places naturally most vulnerable to contamination, certain existing land uses that could potentially contaminate the aquifer, obvious things like gas stations and cemeteries and garages.”

Knowing where the aquifers are located and where those water supplies are most vulnerable to pollution will allow the town “to direct certain kinds of new development away from these vulnerable areas and keep an eye on any of the potential contaminant sources to make sure that they are operated in a way to minimize the threat of contamination to any of the ground water,” she said.

It turns out one of the most vulnerable spots is right under downtown Hillsdale. “The hamlet itself is located in one of the largest unconsolidated aquifer areas,” said Ms. Stevens.

She believes the new findings “highlight the importance of what Hillsdale has actually accomplished in the last couple of years by building a sewage treatment plant for hamlet residences and businesses. Before that was in place, all of those houses and businesses had their own septic systems and it was obviously creating a problem even at the surface,” she said.

Ms. Stevens emphasized that “virtually all our wells depend on groundwater sources, so it’s a conservation issue that I think all residents and businesses in the town would be concerned about.” She said that much of what the report describes is “really quite relevant to the decisions the town makes in the future about land use.”

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