SCHENECTADY Water quality, post-disaster reconstruction and clues to climate change gleaned from migrating birds were among a variety of topics brought to one place Friday during the 5th Annual Mohawk Watershed Symposium.
More than 150 people representing science, government, citizens and students gathered at Union College for the daylong conference founded by Union geology professor John Garver in the wake of flooding that hit the Mohawk Valley in 2006.
The conference started out with about 75 participants five years ago and has doubled in size since then — and Garver said later Friday he expects the symposium will turn into a tradition. More experts, researchers and school students are taking part in the focus on the once-neglected watershed each year, Garver said, and he sees enthusiasm and excitement growing along with the number of participants.
“We can’t not do this at this point. This has become one of the most important things in the watershed,” Garver said.
Sponsored in part by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Brookfield Renewable Energy Group, the event provides a platform for different fields working on or studying parts of the massive watershed surrounding the state’s second-biggest river. Schenectady County Soil and Water Conservation District Director David Mosher, who coordinates the 14-county Mohawk Watershed Coalition of Conservation Districts, said the symposium gives participants a wide view of the research that’s under way.
The coalition, created in 2009, is putting a management plan together for the entire 3,460-square-mile watershed, and it’s important to avoid duplicating efforts, Mosher said. Many groups, including local high school and college students and volunteers, are undertaking studies and gathering important data, he said, and it’s all gravitating to Union College each year.
Mosher said the volume of current research the symposium brings to light leaves him confident there are few, if any gaps in the review of the river system many considered “orphaned” just six years ago.
“In five years, we’ve come a long way,” he said.
Schenectady high school students manned a booth at the symposium detailing water-quality studies in the Schoharie Creek coordinated by the Schoharie River Center of Burtonsville, and James Duggan, an oft-flooded resident of Schenectady’s historic Stockade neighborhood, displayed a poster full of research urging more study of the Vischer Ferry dam in Niskayuna and its influence on ice-jam flooding.
Meanwhile, Dam Concerned Citizens members Howard Bartholomew and Robert Price were promoting ideas aimed at ensuring safety and improving recreation and ecological health along the Schoharie Creek — the Mohawk’s biggest tributary.
Dam Concerned Citizens formed years ago after the Gilboa Dam was deemed not up to modern standards and at risk of sliding under high pressure. Since then, the dam has been anchored to the bedrock below with massive steel cables — likely responsible for its survival during the epic rainfall of Tropical Storm Irene.
Price said people are more confident in the dam’s security — so now Dam Concerned Citizens is promoting other ideas. They hope to encourage the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which manages the dam, to institute regular releases of water from the Schoharie Reservoir, providing a steady flow of water that would improve habitat along the creek.
During drought and warm weather, parts of the Schoharie Creek dry up, making it unsuitable for fishing or other recreation.
Dam Concerned Citizens is also calling on New York state to officially establish a protocol for releasing water from the Gilboa Dam, the New York Power Authority’s dam downstream and the state Canal Corp.’s dams on the Mohawk, “so that when there’s threats of one sort or another, there’s a coordinated effort to do what can be done to mitigate the possibility of damage,” Price said.
With agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Weather Service, the state DEC and others involved, he said the symposium is “pushing things to a higher level.”
“This kind of forum has a lot of value,” Price said.
U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, said clear evidence of climate change highlights the importance of the discussion and research displayed at the symposium, and said he’s fighting to prioritize a focus on the Mohawk and Hudson rivers for federal funding.
Tonko said the need to adapt infrastructure, restore wetlands and take other steps to ensure resilient communities should be a priority in Washington in light of recent disasters.
“We have ignored or denied the problem for too long,” he said.
Following hours of presentations, the group heard from keynote speaker Rebecca Wodder, senior adviser to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. She provided an outline of a new program created last year, the National Blueways System, which brings together stakeholders along an entire river system, even crossing state lines, and provides support for local efforts aimed at conservation, improving outdoor recreation and environmental education and building sustainable economic activities using lands and forests.
There are two National Blueways so far, the 400-mile Connecticut River in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut and the 800-mile White River in Arkansas and Missouri. Wodder said the Hudson and Mohawk rivers are large enough together to be considered.
The entire volume of scientific papers and many of the Mohawk Watershed Symposium’s posters are being made available on the Internet at http://minerva.union.edu/garverj/mws/2013/symposium.html.