Jerome Park will remain largely off limits to public

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The Department of Environmental Protection will not open the gates of Jerome Park Reservoir for nearby residents once the Croton Filtration Plant is operational in 2013. 

Citing security and operational concerns, the DEP will instead start a pilot program that  allows limited access for a matter of hours each week. 

Local activists, who have been fighting for access to Jerome Park Reservoir for years, see the decision as senseless.  Not only were they promised $5 million to build a recreational parkway around the reservoir, they say the DEP introduced a similar limited-access program 16 years ago and it was successful. 

So, they wonder, why not simply take down the fence that stops them from running and walking around the reservoir? Or at least let them run between the two fences.

In the summer of 1995, hundreds of people joined hands on the walkway that crosses Jerome Park Reservoir from Sedgwick Avenue to Goulden Avenue to show support for full access to the water, according to Anne Marie Garti of the Jerome Park Conservancy. 

That year, as part of a limited-access program, the Department of Environmental Protection allowed residents inside the gated reservoir that had been off limits since World War II. 

For a few years, they were allowed inside the outer gate of Jerome Park Reservoir to walk or jog around the 125-acre park for a few hours a day. Schools visited the reservoir on field trips. The DEP even gave teaching tours about New York City’s water system. 

Even then, Ms. Garti and many of her neighbors wanted unlimited access. But after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the reservoir, which is empty because the New Croton Aqueduct is under repair, has been completely off limits.

“The reservoir, when it has water in it, is one of the most beautiful places in the city it has hand built stonewalls, its on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a huge amenity that would cost billions of dollars to make now, and they’re denying this community access to it when they allow every other community in other areas access to their reservoirs. This is entirely about being in the Bronx,” Ms. Garti said.

In the early 90s, Jerome Park Reservoir was a candidate for the new Croton Water Treatment Plant, which is now being built in Van Cortlandt Park at the Mosholu Golf Course. 

But the DEP still plans for the Jerome Park Reservoir to be part of the Croton Water Treatment Plant system. The reservoir will hold raw, untreated water that can be used for drinking only after it travels north to the treatment plant and back. Under normal circumstances, the water at Jerome Park will not be used for the city’s drinking water. 

As a community benefit in exchange for building a huge treatment plant in Van Cortlandt Park against activists’ wishes, legislators allocated $200 million for Bronx parks in 2004. It included $5 million for a recreational path to be constructed around the reservoir.

The DEP now says allowing people on the path around the reservoir is not feasible. It hired an outside consultant, Peter Szabo of Bloomingdale Management, to interview members of the community as well as DEP employees and employees of other city agencies and report his findings to a DEP Working Group, made up of DEP employees. 

According to the DEP’s report, Mr. Szabo found that security of the water and the successful operation of the water system outweighed the desire for public access. 

Jerome Park Reservoir currently has two fences surrounding it. At points, the fences are about 10 feet apart, but in some places the distance between the two is significantly larger. There is a paved path that circles the reservoir between the fences, as well as grassy areas and woods, which are off limits.

“What I want to know is what’s the difference between an outer fence and an inner fence as far as security?” said nearby resident and longtime activist Gary Axelbank.

The pilot program the DEP has offered would consist of limited access for three days a week, with a couple of hours of open time for the public to walk around the path between the two fences, as well as open houses or community days including programmed activities and tours. The DEP will look at “attendance, enjoyment of the participants, cost, risk to water supply security and impact on DEP operations,” according to the DEP’s report.

Mr. Axelbank scoffed at the idea that cost was a factor because, he said, the Croton plant he fought hard against being placed in the Bronx at all is currently more than $2 billion over budget.

The DEP’s report includes other arguments familiar to residents who have been attending  Croton Filtration Monitoring Committee Meetings and who have answers to them all.

The report compares Jerome Park Reservoir to Hillview Reservoir in Yonkers or Shaft 18 of the Delaware Aqueduct in Westchester, which is part of the Kensico Reservoir. It says both of these reservoirs are similar to Jerome Park Reservoir and both do not allow public access. Kensico Reservoir, however, does allow public access on its northern portion and Ms. Garti said the same policy should be put in place for Jerome Park Reservoir. 

Another reason the DEP gave for blocking access is that the water is so close to the consumers’ taps that widespread contamination might not be preventable in an emergency. 

However, activists argue that when the Croton Filtration Plant is operational, only untreated, “raw,” water will be held on the surface of Jerome Park Reservoir. Before it reaches any tap in New York City, that water will travel north to the Croton plant to be treated before being sent back down under Jerome Park Reservoir through new shafts and chambers.

Residents also say that the public is allowed access to the reservoir in Central Park and ask,why not in the Bronx?

In the report, the DEP shoots down a comparison to the Central Park Reservoir, which allows public access but is currently offline. 

But Ms. Garti said their comparison does not make sense because for more than 75 years the city allowed public access to the parkland around the reservoir in Central Park, even when it was online.

“This is incredible public space and it should be accessible to all of the people of the area to enhance the lives of the people there,” Mr. Axelbank said.

Those who want access to the reservoir said they will express their concerns and ask for open access at the next Croton Filtration Monitoring Committee meeting on Thursday, March 31, at the Department of Environmental Protection’s office, 3660 Jerome Ave., at 7 p.m.

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