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New steps aided in Sandy response

Reservoirs were lowered, canal gates raised

Wednesday, October 31, 2012
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View of repairs to chains and holders for the gates at Lock 15 in Fort Plain.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
View of repairs to chains and holders for the gates at Lock 15 in Fort Plain.

— In 2006, the Mohawk River gushed through Montgomery County villages like Fort Plain, wiping out businesses and homes and leaving a mess that took years to clean up.

Mayor Guy Barton remembers the damage, and he remembers another sight in the aftermath of that disaster: tons of debris jammed up in the movable dam gates the state Canal Corp. uses to maintain water levels for navigation along the Erie Canal.

Since then, Barton has been calling state officials and demanding to know who was in charge of lifting the canal gear and whether they’d do it before a storm.

He’s not been alone.

After last year’s disasters — tropical storms Irene and Lee — residents and officials began questioning why water wasn’t drained from New York City’s Schoharie Reservoir, and why the New York Power Authority didn’t lower its reservoirs — both of which are situated along the Schoharie Creek and are part of the massive drainage area known as the Mohawk River Watershed.

Though the Mohawk Valley didn’t take on historic flooding from Hurricane Sandy this week, people in the Schoharie and Mohawk valleys on Tuesday said history was made anyway.

Never before has the New York City Department of Environmental Protection lowered the Schoharie Reservoir in deference to potential flooding. The agency made room for about 390 million gallons of water and lowered other reservoirs as well. That’s not even 2 percent of the reservoir’s capacity, but it’s more than has been done before.

Never before has the New York Power Authority lowered the lower reservoir at its Blenheim-Gilboa hydroelectric facility and at the Hinckley Reservoir, north of Utica, to make room for floodwater.

And never before has the state Canal Corp., by raising the gates on its adjustable dams, drained down the Erie Canal portion of the Mohawk River to winter levels in anticipation of flooding.

In the past, all of these agencies have echoed the mantra that they are not meant for flood control: The DEP gathers drinking water for the Big Apple, the Power Authority makes electricity, the Canal Corp. floats boats. All the while, people have been saying these facilities can and should be used to help minimize the impact of flooding.

“Frankly, we’ve seen these people come together in a way, to think about flood mitigation, that is absolutely historic,” said John Garver, a geology professor at Union College in Schenectady.

Garver, who has studied ice jam flooding on the Mohawk for years, created an annual meeting called the Mohawk Watershed Symposium not long after the 2006 flooding. It’s a forum that has brought state agencies, scientists and citizen groups together to focus on the watershed considered for years to be “orphaned.”

Since then, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has created a Mohawk Basin program focusing on all aspects of the Mohawk and its tributaries.

Garver said he’s not sure what to call the coordinated preparation for Sandy — perhaps a historic political event.

“People who control water in the watershed are doing so as a partnership and that partnership is recognizing that there is a sort of shared responsibility in the basin to manage and control water,” he said.

Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie, attributes the development not only to local officials’ continual nagging, but also to the human impact last year’s tropical storms had on so many people in the region.

“The effects of Irene and Lee are still being felt. It was a profound impact on the consciousness of the city and the state so it left a mark, there’s a sensitivity there,” he said.

It’s a sensitivity Lopez said he’s been trying to tap into since the start of this year, when he began discussing ways to develop additional capacity in reservoirs affecting the Schoharie and Mohawk valleys.

“Open hearts and open minds, when presented with a rational, reasonable plan, are willing to consider options,” he said.

Lopez, a Republican, said much credit goes to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.

“I give the governor’s office full credit because their hand was in all of it,” he said.

It was only a month ago when Mayor Barton of Fort Plain stood up during the Mohawk River Flood Risk Forum in Herkimer demanding to know if anybody was in charge of the Canal Corp.’s adjustable dams, and if there would ever be plans to raise the gates in the event flooding was imminent.

Barton spent part of this past weekend watching crews from the state Canal Corp. at Lock E-15 replacing some chains then working to lift the adjustable dam infrastructure out of the Mohawk River. It’s action he said he appreciates greatly.

“There is flood control, we’ve proved it does work, it would’ve worked [in the past],” Barton said. “I believe that the state has finally opened their eyes to help save the Mohawk Valley by using the control of the barge canal and the dam and the lock systems to alleviate water coming into these communities.”

Schoharie town Supervisor Eugene Milone said talk about using reservoirs in the watershed to help minimize flooding’s impact was going on long before Tropical Storm Irene.

“This is unprecedented, what happened right here,” he said.

He attributes the change that led to all these different agencies lowering water levels in the Mohawk Watershed to Gov. Cuomo.

“This governor gets it. He gets it. All of the cries that have come from the valley fell on deaf ears for years,” Milone said.

Milone, whose town lost $12 million in property value to Irene, said he sees no reason why the process can’t be established for future potential flooding events.

“They know it can work, they know it can help. It’s proven itself, and as far as I’m concerned, there is absolutely no reason to go backwards, it’s just that simple. I’m elated, I really am,” Milone said.

Lopez said he believes the use of reservoirs and the Mohawk River to help minimize flooding’s impact is a process that could be set as a procedure through a memorandum of agreement or through a statute.

“A memorandum of agreement could spell out all protocols and procedures. I think it’s worth putting in place for subsequent administrations,” Lopez said. “We did set a new precedent here, and I’m pleased that we did. It also provided a level of comfort throughout the community because people knew we were doing everything we possibly could.”

The Canal Corp. and the governor’s office did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment for this story.

It was unclear Tuesday what the next step will be on the canal system. But Canal Corp. Director Brian Stratton, during a news conference in Cohoes on Sunday, stated the Canal Corp. anticipated full reinstallation of the gear to return the canal system to normal navigational levels after the danger of Sandy had passed. The canal is scheduled to close Nov. 15.

 
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