The Lake Isle Dam is a human-made structure erected in 1894 to create a drinking water reservoir for New Rochelle residents. Located in Eastchester, New York, the dam has outlived its original use. It now serves the recreational needs of wealthy Eastchester, New Rochelle, and Scarsdale residents who live on its perimeter. For the last 40-years, the dam has had little maintenance, and experts cite it as unsound with the potential for causing loss of life. At issue is the financial cost for either draining the dam ($3 million) or repairing it ($20 million). Neither the property owners who enjoy its use nor the towns within which the dam lie want to pay. They want to limit their financial support for the repair and maintenance as they look for help from the county, state, and federal governments.
A failure at Lake Isle Dam will spare Eastchester residents. Meanwhile, Mount Vernon and New Rochelle residents will come into the direct path of damage as water forces itself towards the Bronx. Residents in Chester Heights and Oakwood Heights will feel the most crushing impact of the carnage. But nothing could compare to the risk that Mount Vernon High School faces. The school sits less than one-half of a mile south of Eastchester, with an enrollment of 1400 mostly black and brown children.
It is another example of racism by zip code in Westchester County, slapping you in the face. The Lake Isle dam issue reminds many Black residents of how the government ignored the levees in Katrina. The wealthy Westchester residents in municipalities that are majority white refuse to pay their share of maintenance because the damage would be less affluent Black and Brown Communities, in a chance of the flood.
It may be relatively easy to determine where floodwaters may ultimately rest. Still, it is impossible to predict 100% accuracy the exact route 192 million gallons of gushing water will take. Additionally, no one knows when the 126 -year-old dam will break. It could happen without notice after a heavy rain, snowmelt, or no intervening condition. Even if Mount Vernon’s High School’s impact is only one percent, this is a risk that Mount Vernon parents and residents cannot and will not take.
Dams are notoriously destructive when they fail. The force and speed of rushing water can destroy everything in its path. The worst dam disaster in the US occurred in 1893 when the South Fork Dam in Pennsylvania, owned and used as a playground for wealthy industrialists, collapsed. Billions of gallons of water barreled towards Johnstown, Pennsylvania was destroying it in only 10-minutes. Over two thousand lives were lost, and property damage totaled $342 million in today’s dollars. Interestingly, the well-financed owners avoided legal responsibility for that incident.
Observers of a dam disaster in 1911 in Austin, Pennsylvania, described the horror of watching the force of water ripping away structures, leveling homes, and carrying away horses. That dam held a reservoir of 200 million gallons of water almost similar in size to the Lake Isle Dam. Seventy-eight people died in that disaster from a structure built that same year. Present-day fatalities would be higher because impacted areas are more densely populated now than they were in 1911. Mount Vernon is the most densely populated locality in Westchester and one of the most densely populated New York State.
Populated areas are unsuitable sites for modern dams. Recreational dams do not belong in urban or suburban settings. The risk to life far outweighs their recreational use. It is unimaginable that community and political leaders have kept this closely guarded secret and allowed Lake Isle Dam to exist still. Mount Vernonites believe that to avert a crisis, a natural ecosystem should replace the reservoir. It is irrelevant whether or not public fund contributes to this project, the dam must go! Our leaders must take immediate action.
God forbid, but if there is a flood, it will wash away the racist power structures that thumb their noses up to the injustices and unacknowledged inequalities of the haves against the have nots in this county. Especially when the responsibility falls on the shoulders of those who have and just refuse to do the right thing.
Please call your county, state, and federal representatives and ask them to remove the Lake Isle Dam and not repair it. Using public funds to support the pleasure of a few when lives are at stake is immoral.
Sourced from ‘Unsound’ Lake Isle dam is deteriorating, ignored, and unclaimed by municipalities by David McKay Wilson Rockland/Westchester Journal News