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Officials seeking ways to control Mohawk River

Forum offers info, place to air issues

Friday, September 14, 2012
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— Six years after the Montgomery County waterfront was devastated by flooding, there’s still no clear-cut plan to control the level of the Mohawk River, which has dealt major blows to communities from Utica to Waterford for decades.

But ongoing studies by numerous agencies are gradually bringing elements of flood control on the river into focus.

About 60 people attended a Mohawk River Flood Risk Forum on Thursday at Herkimer County Community College. Coordinated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the forum was organized as part of the Mighty Waters initiative established by U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam.

The event served both as a forum for agencies to describe progress in research and for others to vent frustration over the work’s pace.

With still-fresh memories of lost business and residential destruction in June 2006, Fort Plain Mayor Guy Barton hurled questions at state Canal Corp. hydrologist Howard Goebel, demanding to know who is in charge of raising and lowering the gates on the canal’s movable dams. Barton is convinced flood debris jammed up against the canal’s dam was responsible for floodwater pouring into the village six years ago, and he believes somebody should claim responsibility for the system’s operation as it relates to impending high water.

“They didn’t open the gates. It flooded our community,” Barton said, who characterized flood control efforts as “craziness.”

“I lost a whole community because of it. Who’s controlling what? Mr. [Brian] Stratton, you or someone else we don’t know? I’ve asked and asked and asked, and everybody avoids the question,” Barton exclaimed. “Somebody’s got to take some responsibility.”

Union College geology professor John Garver, who spearheaded the first scientific focus on the river and flooding by creating the annual Mohawk Watershed Symposium held at the college, described the foreboding backdrop these flood studies are being conducted in.

Often, he said, the past is considered a key to the future. But a study of changing weather patterns and water flow is making it clear there’s more water flowing into the Schoharie Creek — the Mohawk River’s biggest tributary — and that flow is likely to continue increasing.

“It’s changing in a very dramatic way,” Garver said.

Studies have been predicting dynamic weather patterns and increased flooding frequency, he said, which is not really news to people in the Mohawk Valley.

“We’re seeing this already,” Garver said.

He told the group that communities need to find ways to adapt in the face of flooding and learn smarter ways to rebuild.

He cautioned that tropical storm flooding isn’t the biggest issue that affects Mohawk Valley communities. Flooding from ice jams, Garver said, has historically topped the list in terms of the frequency with which the Mohawk inundates places like the city of Schenectady’s historic Stockade neighborhood.

Critical stream gauges along the Schoharie Creek and other waterways — many torn off their foundations during last year’s flooding — are being elevated and rebuilt to withstand floodwaters higher than those that accompanied tropical storms Irene and Lee.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has been taking the lead on new studies started in the wake of 2006 flooding, creating the Mohawk River Basin program that’s working in tandem with more than a dozen soil and water conservation district offices, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies.

And with Irene and Lee laying waste to Schoharie and Mohawk valley communities last year, the DEC was able to secure a $100,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a study. FEMA project manager Robert Singer said the Mohawk River Floodplain Assessment, considered a “quick and dirty” analysis, provides a view of where communities have placed critical facilities like hospitals and fire stations.

Between Utica and the eastern edge of Schenectady County alone, there are 290 critical facilities either in a flood zone or close to one, according to the report.

Though faced with limited funding, James Tierney, the DEC’s assistant commissioner for water resources, said officials are working hard to find ways for communities to limit the risk of flooding, recover quickly after a disaster and prepare for a future that could bring even more water.

“We have to find the techniques … to manage stormwater, slow it down, soak it in,” he said.

 
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