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FEMA might fund project to raise dam gates faster, easier

Wednesday, December 26, 2012
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Lock 10 on the Erie Canal, which crosses the Mohawk River between Cranesville, east of Amsterdam, and the town of Florida, sustained serious damage during Tropical Storm Irene from debris that got caught in its gates.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Lock 10 on the Erie Canal, which crosses the Mohawk River between Cranesville, east of Amsterdam, and the town of Florida, sustained serious damage during Tropical Storm Irene from debris that got caught in its gates.

— A project being considered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency would modify dam gates along the Erie Canal to make it easier to remove them prior to flooding, when they often clog with debris, causing higher water levels and greater flood damage.

FEMA is accepting public comment on plans under a short deadline and published legal ads to that effect in some newspapers recently.

State Canal Corp. spokesman Shane Mahar on Wednesday referred questions about the project’s cost, timeline and other details to FEMA. FEMA spokesman Donald Caetano referred questions to the email address posted as the receiver of public comments, FEMA’s Albany office of Environmental Planning and Preservation, but emails sent to that address were not responded to Wednesday.

The effort would focus from Lock 8 in Glenville through Lock 15 in Fort Plain and would facilitate actions taken by the Canal Corp. this year in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy.

Still reeling from the disaster wrought by tropical storms Irene and Lee, officials in Schoharie and Montgomery counties were relieved after several steps were taken in the Mohawk River watershed to prevent another disaster as Superstorm Sandy bore down on the region in October.

With the goal of getting as much water out of the system as possible to allow for the flow of massive rainfall, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection released some water from the Gilboa Dam, situated on the Schoharie Creek, the Mohawk River’s largest tributary. The New York Power Authority also emptied water from its lower reservoir, also on the Schoharie Creek, just downstream from the Gilboa Dam, and the Canal Corp. pulled its movable dams out of the river entirely.

Sandy didn’t plaster the Mohawk Valley as feared, but the process made it clear all three entities — created for other purposes — can play a role in lessening the impact of flooding.

It took less than a week for the Canal Corp. to pull its movable dam infrastructure completely out of the water in October. The goal of the project FEMA is considering is to speed that process up — to modify the gates so they can be “opened over a substantially compressed timeframe.”

“The proposed plan would allow the removal of the movable dam’s lower gates and uprights that collect enormous amounts of debris. The inability to raise the lower gates and uprights has resulted in substantially higher peak water levels at each moveable dam during major flood events than would be observed if the lower gates and uprights were removed and the debris accumulation was not an issue,” the FEMA announcement states.

The Canal Corp.’s movable dams became a focus of flood-reduction discussions after 2006 flooding along the Mohawk River that inundated riverside communities including Canajoharie, Fonda, Fultonville, Fort Plain and part of the city of Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood. In the 2006 flood, tons of debris and trees slammed up against the dams, which block the path of the Mohawk River, by design, to create reservoirs suitable for navigation along the canal.

The river couldn’t move the dams, so it carved a new path around Lock 10 in Cranesville and caused millions of dollars in damage there and at other locks in the system.

That flood led to calls for study and remediation of the problem, with legislation creating the Canal Flood Mitigation Task Force — but that group has never held a meeting.

Flood damage occurred again, but on a greater scale, in 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene, followed by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee, dumped massive rainfall on the region. This time, the flooded river carved paths around other locks including locks 8 and 9 in Glenville, Lock 10 in Cranesville and Lock 11 in Amsterdam.

The lack of a path for the raging river resulted in massive damage to the historic mansion at Guy Park Manor adjacent to Lock 11 .

Pulling the movable dams out of the water is dangerous for Canal Corp. workers, who have to climb up on catwalks along the dams and use ancient electric “mules,” or winches that are hooked to chains that pull up the pans and then the gates. The task is nearly impossible to do when the river is raging.

FEMA provided disaster recovery aid after the 2006 flooding and again after Irene and Lee. Assistance for the 2011 storms stood at $12 million earlier this month. Canal damage from Irene and Lee is expected to exceed $40 million.

The project being considered could minimize damage after another flood.

“Because of their location, properties including public facilities, business and residences within the Mohawk River/Erie Canal flood plain are susceptible to repetitive flood damage, including but not limited to inundation,” the notice states.

Comments on the proposal, alternatives and impacts to flood plains can be submitted in writing to: FEMA Environmental Planning and Historic Preservation, Leo O’Brien Federal Building, 11A Clinton Ave., Suite 742, Albany, NY 12207. Comments can also be sent by email to FEMA4020-2031COMMENT@fema.dhs.gov.

 
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