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State To Deploy Icebreakers To Mitigate Schenectady County Flooding

A still from a listener-submitted video of an ice jam on the Mohawk River, shot from Schenectady's Stockade neighborhood. File photo.
Photo provided
A still from a listener-submitted video of an ice jam on the Mohawk River, shot from Schenectady's Stockade neighborhood. File photo.

A new strategy is being deployed this winter to mitigate ice jam flooding on the Mohawk River.

Schenectady’s historic Stockade district along the Mohawk  River is prone to flooding. And some years, like in 2018, when the river clogs with ice, water levels can rise by several feet, putting some streets and homes underwater.

As part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Reimagine The Canals Initiative, a new pilot program will try to break up sheet ice before it has a chance to break up, bunch up, refreeze, repeat…forming an ice jam.

Shane Mahar is a spokesman for the New York State Canal Corporation…

“We are deploying tugboats on the canal to break up sheet ice as it forms on the waterway upstream from the Vischer Ferry dam at Lock E in Niskayuna and the Rexford Gorge – essentially the Rexford Bridge area,” said Mahar.

While the tugboats can be used to break up sheet ice, they won’t be deployed to break up a frozen jam once it forms.

Mahar said the icebreaker pilot program is just one idea to prevent flooding.

“We’re investigating the potential retrofitting of the Vischer Ferry dam with crest gates that can be raised and lowered at different points to manage the flow of the water as it goes downstream. We’re looking at mapping…the Mohawk River channel in this area to understand the depth and the geology that’s underneath the water there. Do certain areas need to be dredged or widened, etc.,” said Mahar.

Another idea under consideration: an early warning system for riverfront residents that utilizes cameras and sensors.

But John Garver, a professor of geology at Union College who is also working on the project, said it’s important to understand that the efforts won’t eliminate flooding in Schenectady County.

“It might help but it’s not going to get rid of it, and I think that becomes a really, really important point to think about, especially with the Stockade,” said Garver.

Garver says riverfront communities need to consider ways on their own to mitigate flooding.

And, he says, don’t count on warmer winters caused by climate change to solve the problem, either.  

“We’re not going to sort of melt our way out of this problem. And in fact, one of the things we’ve been seeing over the past couple of decades or so, is we’re getting a lot of mid-winter breakups. And this is awkward because we get a big breakup and then it gets clogged and it doesn’t go away,” said Garver.  

Another thing a changing climate has brought: more precipitation and high-water storm events.

But the icebreakers are a first step. And now that freezing temperatures, ice, and snow are here, next time you’re driving over the Mohawk River, keep an eye out for some tugboats clearing a channel to keep things moving.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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