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Report recommends ways to mitigate flooding in Mohawk, Oswego river basins

A barge on the Mohawk River
Lucas Willard
A barge on the Mohawk River

A New York task force investigating the impacts of flooding throughout the Mohawk and Oswego River basins has released a set of recommendations to mitigate future flood damages.

As required by state legislation, a year-long investigation into mitigating the impacts of flooding from the Capital Region to the Finger Lakes was completed by the nine-member Upstate Flood Mitigation Task Force and New York State Canal Corporation.

The report, released on July 1st, makes several recommendations and serves as a roadmap for preventing and responding to high-water events.

Shane Mahar is a spokesperson for the Canal Corporation.

“This will be a document that continues to be adapted and evolved over time based on forecasts and conditions and real-time events. It'll serve as a tool in our toolbox and will also help us in that much more coordinated approach,” said Mahar.

The Oswego and Mohawk are in geologically distinct watersheds. Mahar says the Task Force, under the direction of Governor Kathy Hochul, was the first of its kind to “zero in” on both river basins.

Mahar said the Task Force examined the response to high water events over the last several years, including storms Irene and Lee in 2011.

“The Canal Corporation spent $28 million to mitigate and improve the movable dam structures that are in the canal throughout the Mohawk Valley. So that was one of the significant improvements that we made operationally to improve our infrastructure post Irene/Lee. But this task force was looking at other things as well, lessons learned from those storms and going forward what types of improvements can we make?” said Mahar.

Some recommendations for the Mohawk River watershed include investigating the modernization of 10 moveable dams, updating the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps, and the permanent funding of wintertime ice-breaking strategies to prevent flooding in the Schenectady area.

John Garver, a professor of Geology at Union College in Schenectady, has been studying the Mohawk for years and has been involved in the experimental ice-breaking effort on the river that’s kept the Stockade-area ice-jam free for three seasons now.

But breaking the ice is just part of it. Garver is pleased to see the recommendation to modify the Vischer Ferry Dam to allow overflows to be released.

“The science and the engineering behind that particular idea is what we refer to as break and flush, and the break and flush right now, we're just doing break. And to do break and flush, we need to be able to move that water through and preemptively drawdown prior to a melt event and that’s the idea with the movable dam on the Vischer Ferry Dam,” said Garver.

Garver says research predicts a future shift in flood hazards, with more frequent big storms in the summer and fall. Meantime, winters may become milder – potentially making ice jams less frequent.

But flooding cannot be prevented entirely, and in some instances, a more permanent solution to prevent the flooding of homes and structures could be to remove them from the floodplain. The Task Force report recommends the development of a “more robust, coordinated flood buyout program” for homes within the FEMA flood plain.

That idea has been discussed before in Schenectady. Garver says moving buildings could be a complicated issue for a neighborhood such as the historic Stockade.

“And so elevating houses and moving houses there is complicated, but demolition of houses is just not on the table. So I think Canals could play a very important role in facilitating those discussions about how to address directly flooding in what is essentially our most historic neighborhood in upstate New York,” said Garver.

Mahar says the Task Force report and its recommended, actionable items are achievable and, if implemented, will improve the lives of residents within both the Mohawk and Oswego River watersheds.

“The report was really step one, you know, now the real work begins,” said Mahar.

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