Mohawk Valley plan pushes future view

Airborne mercury from coal-fired electricity plants falls into the Mohawk River watershed on a regul
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Airborne mercury from coal-fired electricity plants falls into the Mohawk River watershed on a regular basis.

The river’s largest tributary, the Schoharie Creek, can nearly run dry due to water held unnecessarily behind the 82-year-old Gilboa Dam.

Schenectady faces chronic flooding due to ice jams in the Mohawk River, but a system of gauges that could alert emergency officials is not in place.

Scientists studying climate change say weather dynamics could make some of these problems worse.

These and other issues were discussed at Union College Friday where roughly 100 people representing science, government and community development attended the region’s first Mohawk Watershed Symposium.

“We’re after an understanding of the watershed,” said Professor John Garver, chair of the college geology department, which has been studying factors behind ice jam flooding.

Representatives from the state Department of Environmental Conservation outlined goals Friday of a new initiative, the Mohawk River Basin Program. Goals include managing the watershed, protecting and improving water quality, reducing flood frequency and severity, and preserving historical, cultural and recreational resources.

“The 140-mile Mohawk River remains a flood threat to the entire Mohawk River basin. It’s wild, it’s dirty, and it blocks out economic development from those who would build but won’t take the risk,” said Fred Miller, the director of the Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor Commission.

“The Mohawk River valley has not had a powerful and active coalition of organizations and residents who are willing to forge a power team and demand action now,” said Miller, who contends other state features such as the Hudson River have received attention while the Mohawk has been relatively ignored.

“There’s tremendous talent in this room. I’m going to suggest … that we put it to use,” Miller said.

Though there has not been an effort solely dedicated to the Mohawk River, presenters Friday made it clear there’s been a lot of research on the waterway and its surroundings. Researchers can pinpoint areas facing environmental issues on a computer mapping program. Another map displayed Friday depicts areas throughout Schenectady County that are believed susceptible to landslides. The maps can enable local governments to make better development decisions.

The Schoharie Creek, one of three main tributaries to the Mohawk River, has minimal flow at times in the section north of the Gilboa Dam.

A Schoharie County group — Dam Concerned Citizens Inc. — is calling for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to implement a continuous release of water once an overhaul of the dam — planned for the next couple of years — is complete, director Howard Bartholomew told the group.

The Gilboa Dam holds back the Schoharie Reservoir, which supplies 16 percent of New York City’s water, and when the dam isn’t filled up and spilling over, the Schoharie Creek, which runs northward towards the Mohawk River, can practically dry out, leaving little chance for aquatic life to survive, Bartholomew said.

2006 flooding

Momentum to focus on the Mohawk River began in earnest after the 2006 flooding that wiped out villages in Montgomery County and caused an estimated $100 million in damage.

Roughly $225 million in government assistance was spent in the 12-county region following the flooding, which forced about 15,000 residents to request assistance, said Thomas Suro, a representative of the U.S. Geological Survey. That agency has embarked on a study of the Mohawk, Delaware and Susquehanna river basins in cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Norman McBride, director of DEC’s Region 4 fisheries program, reported that the Mohawk River’s fish population is showing an increase in the number of big fish, a decrease in the number of smaller fish and a decrease in the overall fish population.

“There’s not enough small fish being produced in the system. We do not have a definitive reason for what happened,” McBride said.

McBride said it’s possible an increase in water clarity following the introduction of invasive zebra mussels could be making it easier for the big fish to find the small ones.

The good news, McBride said: “Contrary to popular opinion, Mohawk River fish are safe to eat.”

Data on fisheries, McBride said, is old now and he is suggesting a new survey and an update to the 1994 fisheries management plan.

Changes in the climate will likely change river dynamics, said Jaclyn Cockburn, a watershed hydrologist at Union College.

Cockburn said even a small increase in temperature can present major changes, and data being compiled suggests the warming climate can result in a longer growing season, an increase in the average daily temperature, an earlier break-up of ice after the winter, earlier snowmelt, less snow and more ice storms.

Categories: Schenectady County

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