A reader asked us to investigate the perplexing lack of water flowing over Beatties Dam in Little Falls lately, so we immediately called on the services of Montclair resident and Passaic River anthologist Wheeler Antabanez. When we last heard from him in March, our intrepid reporter was alarmingly up close and personal with raging floods in the same location.
At that time, Little Falls’ Mayor DeFrancisci was advising evacuation of homes, and Governor Christie promptly announced the formation of a special commission to oversee relief efforts and tackle the Passaic River basin’s chronic flooding, committing both staff and money. Now, though, a season later, levels are lower than residents can remember, and the fish are trapped in shallow pools of sun-heated water, frantically jumping for their lives. According to the US Geological Survey’s daily statistics for the location, the discharge and depth continue to diminish.
Last Sunday evening, accompanied by his daughter Star, Antabanez explored the hardly-moving river by canoe and found some answers to our questions about where the water went. It turns out to mostly be drought related, but water has also been diverted, bypassing the falls to a lower point in the river in order for maintenance crews to do routine repair work.
According to Joseph Bella, Executive Director of the Passaic Valley Water Commission, which owns the dam, the diversion only accounts for only a small amount of the absent water. “It’s normal for the river to be low at this time of year, with about 10 – 20 million gallons flowing per day. In flood season, we get more like 11 billion gallons passing over the falls,” he explained. “This is why we do routine maintenance in the summer. The lack of water right now is primarily due to drought, but it’s compounded by the diversion.”
This explanation makes sense to DeFrancisci, who has spoken to Bella about the conditions of Little Falls’ often problematic river front at great length over the past months. “It’s the drought,” agreed the mayor. “At this point, we’re just on the cusp of still having enough water to provide our residents with their usual water service.” DeFrancisci also explained that the town and the water commission are trying to solve the problems associated with the river’s ebbs and excessive flows together. But there’s a lot of history behind the situation.
Built in the 1840s by carpet manufacturer moguls Robert Beattie & Sons the dam was originally intended as a power source for the nearby mill. It soon became apparent, however, that controlling the dam, the water power and more than 400 acres of surrounding real estate was a greater asset, and the issue has been a bone of contention between public and private interests ever since. In the early days, Beatties Dam triggered flooding, which caused malaria outbreaks, drowned livestock and ruined crops. Today, residents still struggle with hardship, but, being a privately held operation, control of the dam and water flow has remained in the hands of capitalist enterprise.
Last April, after the area was evacuated and water levels rose two feet above flood stage, the township of Little Falls began to investigate the possibiliey of taking legal action against the Passaic Valley Water Commission. The goal of the possible litigation would be to force the water commission to install a floodgate, which would cause water levels to fall by 6 feet in future emergency situations, potentially avoiding the flood damage that has been going on for so long.
When we spoke to DeFrancisci yesterday, he explained that the town isn’t currently pursuing this legal action and is opting for a more amicable solution. After touring the dam site with Bella’s team, the mayor has a better sense of their perspective. “We’re trying to work together to solve the problem,” he said.
In the meantime, as Antabanez has discovered, the river drama continues, though its currently much less of a raging presence than it was last March.
All photo and video credits go to Wheeler Antabanez. The Passaic River anthologist is currently involved with various projects that will bring the river’s voice to the world via a variety of mediums, including writing a book, filming a movie and broadcasting on the airwaves.
Later this month he’ll be taking National Public Radio on a river tour for a 5-part series for All Things Considered. Antabanez is also working with radio station WFMU on an upcoming live broadcast from the banks of the Passaic, which will feature guests including Mark and Mark from Weird NJ, and X. Ray Burns. The show is scheduled for September 10th 3-6pm on Billy Jam’s show, 91.1FM.