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Experimental effort to reduce impact of ice jams on Mohawk River returns for second year

 A still from a NYS Canal Corporation video describing the experimental effort to mitigate jams and associated flooding in the Mohawk River near Schenectady
NYS Canal Corp.
A still from a listener-submitted video of an ice jam on the Mohawk River, shot from Schenectady's Stockade neighborhood. File photo.

This winter marks the second year of a pilot program seeking to mitigate ice jams and associated flooding on the Mohawk River near Schenectady.

Last weekend, the New York State Canal Corporation released a video detailing the return of a program to mitigate problematic ice jams. In the short video distributed online, Canal Corporation Director and former Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton describes the effort…

“It starts with one of these tugboats here on the Erie Canal and the Mohawk River. These expanded ice-breaking are being performed in anticipation of increased river flows and ice movement, to minimize the potential for ice jam formation in the Schenectady area,” says Stratton.

Part of the idea behind the program is to use the ice-breaking tugs to create a channel of water to prevent the ice from forming into a thick sheet.

Shane Mahar is a spokesperson for the Canal Corporation…

“We’re trying different interventions to understand the ice formation, where these jams occur, if these ice-breaking efforts with the tugboats in trying to create this open channel. So it’s still very much, kind of, a research and development phase of the program,” said Mahar.

But the project, a collaboration with Union College in Schenectady, will not stop ice jams from occurring.

John Garver is a Union College geology professor who has been studying the river for years and is working on the ice-breaking project. He says the Schenectady area is prone to ice jams in part due to the geography of the region.

“One of the things that we’ve inherited from the Ice Age is the narrow section of the river in the Rexford Gorge, and so the Rexford Gorge just downstream from the Rexford Bridge – between there and the Vischer Ferry dam. It’s pretty narrow and it’s very deep,” said Garver.

An ice jam that caused flooding in January of 2018 stretched from Rexford Knolls to near Wolf Hollow in Glenville, about 17 miles. The weather, of course, also plays a role. Right now, there’s more ice on the river than last winter, which was more mild. There’s more than a foot in some places, according to Garver.

Garver explains that the ice comes flowing the down the river, hits the narrows, and squeezes together, thickens, and eventually jams.

This natural occurrence in the river, he says, is not made better by a static pool created by the dam.

“So the Vischer Ferry dam holds up that 10-mile long pool and over the winter we get sheet ice, and that sheet ice is strong. And that ends up holding – when the ice comes down the river – it sort of holds that ice in place. So the two things conspire together, especially the Rexford Knolls, to form sort of a jam point that’s been a problem, sort of, for as long as Schenectady’s been around, actually,” said Garver.

Mahar agrees.

“It’s very important that residents who live in these canalside communities are still vigilant, they’re still paying attention, they’re still understanding there is the potential of an ice jam threat out there. What we’re attempting to do through this pilot program under Reimagine the Canals is to mitigate those impacts,” said Mahar.

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