Lisa Yawn woke up Monday morning to an unpleasant sight and smell: water gushing up through the septic system of the home in Rotterdam Junction where she had been staying.
The water — a mixture of effluent and river water — flooded the basement of the home at 1614 Main St., forcing Yawn, her companion and the home’s owner, Scott Freer, to dry ground.
The water eventually joined the fast-flowing Mohawk River, itself dyed a rich brown in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. The raging river is collecting millions of gallons of runoff from the storm. The runoff, a mixture of untreated sewage, fertilizers and other potentially harmful products, is raising safety concerns among municipalities that depend on the Mohawk River for drinking water.
Because of the potential toxicity of the runoff, the Schenectady County Environmental Health Unit on Monday issued a countywide emergency water restriction. Spokesman Joe McQueen said several municipalities in the county are preparing to shut down their water systems and use stored water reserves until further notice.
More than 150,000 people in Schenectady County drink water taken from the Great Flats Aquifer through wells in Rotterdam. The Mohawk River recharges the aquifer.
“We are worried that if the pump stations are running and the stations flood, then the water [in the system] will get contaminated,” McQueen said.
Municipalities have been pumping treated water into storage tanks, McQueen said. “The hope is this does not last long and we can ride it out. We want to make sure people are not wasting water to hose down sidewalks, for example,” he said.
The county has not received any reports of contaminated water, McQueen said. “There are no boil water advisories in effect in any area,” he said.
Cohoes on Sunday shut down pumps that draw untreated water from the Mohawk River and is depending on a 12-million-gallon reservoir to supply drinking water to the city of 16,000, said Mike Duffy, chief water plant operator. “We got a call from Albany County health that we should shut down,” he said. “We have enough water in that reservoir for seven to 10 days.”
Duffy said the city’s concern is the raw water may contain contaminants from the flood that could prove difficult to treat. The city treats the water before distributing it to residents.
“There is a lot of runoff. When events like this happen, we do not pump,” Duffy said.
The last time the city shut down its pumps was several years ago, he said. “My supervisor will make a determination at some point about restarting the pumps, after talking to Albany County officials,” he said.
The state Department of Health, which monitors public drinking water supplies, had not received any reports of contamination on Monday, said spokesman Peter Constantakes.
He said if flooding occurs near a well, however, the water should be tested. “If it looks muddy, cloudy or smells bad, don’t use it until checked,” he said.
Michael Bopp, of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said his agency is monitoring area wastewater treatment plants for violations of their discharge permits. Following a review of reports, the DEC could issue advisories, he said.
“Each permitted wastewater treatment plant is required to report to us if they violate their State Pollution Discharge and Elimination Permits,” he said. The permit sets parameters for the type of treatment, water flow and gallons per day allowed by a plant, he said.
“We reached out to all wastewater plants in advance of the storm and are in touch with them throughout this,” Bopp said. “We asked them to keep us advised of their status. They are dealing with a 500-year high-water event.”
Bopp said sometimes during major rainstorms, treatment plants cannot handle the volume of runoff, and therefore discharge partially treated or raw sewage into rivers. “They may have pump failure, electrical failures. There are various strategies, including chemical treatment, to deal with the problem temporarily,” Bopp said.
The DEC also operates a spill response unit that monitors fuel, oil or gas spills from all kinds of facilities caused by flooding and other events.
Schenectady Acting Mayor Gary McCarthy said any discharges of untreated sewage by the city’s wastewater treatment plant would quickly dissipate in the river because of the large volume of water flowing downstream. “I am not aware of any significant environmental issues,” he said Monday.
Ray O’Keefe, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albany, said water in the Mohawk River was passing through Schenectady at 106,000 cubic feet per second on Monday afternoon. By comparison, the flow was 9,000 cubic feet per second on Thursday, he said. The record was 141,000 cubic feet per second in 1914.
In addition to flooding the historic Stockade and downtown Schenectady, the Mohawk River also flooded the site of the former Alco plant on Erie Boulevard. The site is under development for residential homes and commercial properties by the Galesi Group. It is mostly vacant, as most of the buildings there have been demolished.
David Buicko, chief operating officer for the Galesi Group, which owns the property, said the flood will delay the redevelopment project slightly. “We were going to start bringing in fill this week, but we will now have to wait until the water recedes,” he said.
Galesi will bring in tons of fill, enough to cover the 60-acre site to a depth of four feet, as a prelude to constructing buildings, Buicko said. He said the buildings will now be elevated to accommodate any future flooding. “We are on a 100-year flood plain; this is a 500-year event,” he said.
The Alco site also contains the L. David Walthousen Laboratory, a low-power reactor operated by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. RPI Provost Robert E. Palazzo said the flood waters never reached the reactor. “In the wake of Hurricane Irene and the flooding in Schenectady, there is absolutely zero public risk from the test reactor. Well before the storm last week, Rensselaer shut down the reactor by placing all nuclear materials in safe storage and secured the lab. The lab remains under 24-hour security,” he said.