ITHACA, N.Y. — As police and public officials gathered on the banks of Second Dam last Wednesday to ticket illegal swimmers, they informally tossed around ideas for how to curb illegal activities in the area.
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Among the ideas discussed:
— Put up trespassing signs that would enable police to ticket people just for being in the area.
— Install a fence around the dam to dissuade people from swimming.
— Invest in hiring gorge rangers to stay posted at the site throughout the summer.
But could the long-term fix possibly be making Second Dam a legal swimming area?
Is it possible? It depends on who you ask.
“We keep this off the beaten path as a forbidden zone and forbidden things happen here,” Common Council member Cynthia Brock said.
The Ithaca Voice reported in June that hundreds of people were gathering at the Six Mile Creek Natural Area — particularly around Second Dam — to swim, cliff jump, drink and do drugs at parties.
Brock said if Second Dam was a legal swimming area, it would probably curb a lot of bad and dangerous behavior because lifeguards, New York State Forest Rangers and police could more readily monitor people. She also added that the presence of families and children in the area would help deter illegal activities.
“There would be an entirely different feel,” she said. “If the rules aren’t working, change the rules.”
But Joe McMahon, chair of the Natural Areas Commission, said efforts to determine if Second Dam could be swimmable are a waste of time.
“It’s just not possible,” he said.
He said he and Brock have discussed the logistics of making Second Dam a legal swimming area in the past and he’s not convinced a project of that size could realistically be considered.
“The city can’t even afford to fill potholes,” he said.
Meanwhile, City Forester Jeanne Grace said the first of many steps to make the swimming area legal is testing the water quality and clarity. Grace said the City of Ithaca Water Treatment plant, located just over a mile from the dam, likely already has some water quality tests.
While water contamination could immediately squash the hope for legal swimming at the dam, Brock said the Six Mile Creek Natural Area seems to create a natural buffer between the dam and areas that could cause contamination, such as neighborhoods or farmland.
But another deterrent to legal swimming is the water’s turbidity — how clear the water appears. That was the downfall of swimming in Cayuga Lake at Stewart Park.
In 1964, lifeguards were unable to see a drowning boy in murky water at a swimming beach, according to The Ithaca Journal.
Who would foot the bill?
If contamination and turbidity meet state standards to make the area swimmable, there are still a host of other logistical questions.
Since last Wednesday, Brock said she talked to an official from the Tompkins County Health Department and Ithaca’s Watershed Coordinator about other requirements for legalized swimming areas.
They confirmed that the state requires swimming areas to have bathrooms, changing areas, parking, safety oversight and staffing to monitor the area.
So who would be able to foot the large bill for the project?
Brock said the area is city property in the town of Ithaca, but said the cost doesn’t have to just fall on the city.
She said the costs might be able to be split between the city and town of Ithaca, Tompkins County and New York State Park Service, because the area could benefit financially from making the gorge a desirable travel destination.
“There’s a lot to support Joe’s position that it’s just not feasible,” Brock said Tuesday. “I still think that this reservoir area is a tremendous natural resource.”
McMahon said the chance of getting enough funding for the project through those agencies is “ridiculous.”
He said the New York State Parks Service has closed parks in the past few years because of funding issues and is barely able to keep up with maintenance of parks that already exist. The city, town and county, he said, all face other budgetary issues.
But Brock and Grace clarified that legalizing swimming at Second Dam would be a years along effort that depends on local and state agencies working together, funding and environmental issues.
If all those factors didn’t align, they agreed, legal swimming at the dam might just not be possible.
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