The Great Trickle? Paterson’s Falls Have Been Somewhat Less Than Great in 2012
Sunday, October 21, 2012 • 9:02am
PATERSON, NJ – Erik Lowe’s offices are in Overlook Park near the Great Falls and for the past several years the chairman of Paterson’s Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA) has spent plenty of time keeping his eye on the Great Falls.
“Never in my time in the city have I seen water levels this significantly down,’’ Lowe said. “It’s like it’s become The Great Trickle instead of the Great Falls.’’
Indeed, so far, 2012 has been a weak year for Paterson’s iconic waterfall. That’s a fact that’s borne out in far more quantitative measurements than Lowe’s perception. Statistics kept by the United States Geological Survey show water levels at the Falls are at their lowest in years. Moreover, the reduced flow of the Passaic River near the Falls has resulted in a significant reduction in the output of the city’s hydroelectric plant.
Lowe says he’s not sure what’s causing the reduced flow of the Passaic. He wondered whether the dam in Pompton Lakes has anything to do with it.
“There’s absolutely no connection whatsoever,’’ said state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spokesman Lawrence Ragonese.
The Passaic, like other rivers in New Jersey, has been affected by short-term weather, according to Ragonese.
“If you remember, we had almost no snow last winter,’’ said Ragonese. “And then we had a very dry early spring. We almost had a drought watch situation. The rivers never fully recovered from that.’’
If this winter brings a normal amount of snow, the Great Falls will be back to normal, according to Ragonese.
Lowe expressed concern that reduced flow of the Passaic River could hurt the tourism potential of Great Falls, the focal point of Paterson’s new national historical park.
The situation also has the Canadian power company that rents the city's hydroelectric power plant considering selling its long-term lease on the facility, according to MUA officials.
The plant generated less than half of its target for the first nine months of this year. Officials had anticipated the plant would generate nearly $1 million in total revenue for Ontario-based Algonquin Power & Utilities Corp. during the first nine months of 2012, but it only produced $291,819, utilities authority officials said.
Paterson's municipal utilities authority, which owns the generating station, was given $32,215.10, a fraction of the revenue it expected from the plant this year.
Lowe told the commissioners, "Because of the lack of productivity in the water, flow they are looking to sell their lease."
Algonquin owns a lease to run the power plant through 2021, with an option to renew for another 40 years. According to the company's website, Algonquin currently operates over 50 power generation facilities and over 20 utilities in Canada and the United States.
"If they want to sell it, that's their option. But I just want to protect our interests in this," Lowe said.
"I think we need to bring them before the board," said MUA commissioner Charles Pettiford.
Since the plant re-opened in 1986, it has had three private operators, each of whom leased the facility from the authority. Synergics, Inc. quickly ran into financial trouble and sold the lease to Independent Hydro Developers in the late 1980's, but bought it back after Independent Hydro fell on hard times.
Low river levels, a lack of financing for maintenance, as well as the Hackensack Water Company's decision to change the natural flow of the Passaic hurt the bottom line of the prior operators, according to a 2001 article in The Record.
Two of the plant's three turbines are currently operating at full capacity, according to Lowe. He said that there were larger issues affecting the amount of water flowing through the plant.
Lowe said he will be meeting with officials in municipalities located "up-county" to discuss the flow as well as problems caused by litter slowing the turbines. "Their trash is clogging up my turbines," he said.
According to the authority's numbers, the Great Falls Generating Station almost met its target for energy creation in January when it generated 2,423 Megawatt hours of electricity, or 96.1% of the target.
While the target was about the same for February, actual energy production declined sharply, falling to 63.5% of the target. The decline continued through April, when the plant generated just 22.0% of the electricity anticipated.
And in June, the plant managed to reach 82.8% of the target generation, just 220 Megawatt hours under the expectation.
But for the months of July, August, and September, even the authority's low estimates proved to be far too lofty. (Due to lower precipitation levels during the "dry season," the authority predicts substantially less power generation in the summertime.) The plant only generated 426.831 Megawatt hours during those three months, about one-fifth of the 2,077.63 Megawatt hours officials had projected.