Officials set sights on more stream gauges
FORT PLAIN Next time the Otsquago Creek threatens to spill over its banks and race through Fort Plain, village residents might have some advance notice, if Sen. Charles Schumer’s latest funding crusade is successful.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, Schumer, D-N.Y., pitched stream gauges as one of the wisest possible uses for public money. In the wake of recent Mohawk Valley flash flooding, he’s calling for the passage of the Obama administration’s 2014 budget, which includes a $7.3 million increase in U.S. Geological Survey funding.
That money, he said, would be used to buy new and maintain existing stream gauges in the state and across the country.
“In terms of bang for your buck,” he said, “this is it.”
The idea as he explained it is pretty simple. Water level and flow gauges set up along the state’s many creeks and rivers report data in real time. If one appears to be cresting, downstream residents can break out the sandbags or get to higher ground.
Currently there are roughly 200 gauges set up in the state, with 31 in the Capital Region. Schumer said that’s not nearly enough.
The sentiment was echoed by Montgomery County Emergency Management Director Adam Schwabrow.
“We definitely want some stream gauges,” he said, calling the technology a useful tool.
The only gauge that is useful to his county is in Little Falls. In flood situations, he uses it to determine the best course of action.
“But a lot can happen in 30 miles of river,” he said.
There used to be a stream gauge on the Otsquago, the same stream that flooded last month, taking Ethel Healey and her Abbott Street home with it.
It was decommissioned in 1989, leaving the village guessing at the creek’s status.
“It was a freak storm,” Schwabrow said, “but if we had given Healey a little more warning, maybe she would have escaped with her life.”
Schwabrow was actually looking into stream gauges in the weeks before the flash flood. He was tired of basing decisions on Little Falls data and considered asking various municipalities to pool money for a few more stream gauges in the area. Then he got a quote from USGS officials — and just about fell off his chair.
Depending on what model is chosen and where it is placed, he said, a gauge can run between $20,000 and $30,000 and cost nearly as much to maintain each year.
Because of those costs, Schumer said the chronically underfunded USGS can barely afford to maintain its current gauges.
The new money, if approved, would ease that burden, as well as pay for the construction of 300 new gauges across the country.
Locations for those gauges has yet to be determined, but Schumer said New York, and specifically the Mohawk Valley, would get a large share.
“Our flood patterns are changing,” he said. “Based on our population density and the recent flood events, I’m confident we would get scores of them.”
He said he’s pushing his colleagues in the Senate to approve the administration’s budget based on the USGS funding.
If it is approved, and a new gauge is installed in the Otsquago, Fort Plain residents will still have to rebuild their village. On that front, Schwabrow said things are going pretty well.
“Abbott and Reid streets still look like a war zone,” he said, “but most of the village looks pretty good. Things are picked up.”
The Red Cross plans to close its feeding site at the Fort Plain Senior Center at 6:30 p.m. today.
Village government is also returning to normal. Starting directly after the flood, Department of Public Works trucks cruised the streets picking up flood-damaged household items from curbs free of charge. As of Wednesday, Schwabrow said, that service had reverted to an appointment-only arrangement.
“You have to go back to normal at some point,” he said,
At this point, village Mayor Guy Barton said his constituents are just waiting to see if a federal emergency is declared.
“Half of the households are relying on federal money to rebuild,” he said. “But if the country doesn’t come through, the governor was in my office last week and he assured me the state would step up.”