Op-ed column: Hold back the waters

Legislation authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the State Emergency Management O

The water has receded and people are cleaning up and repairing damage from the recent flooding, when the Schoharie Creek recorded record flows and the Mohawk River at Schenectady registered the highest free-flow river stage in almost a hundred years.

After floods along the Mohawk in 2006, hearings and calls for action by residents and community leaders, the state established the Canal Flood Mitigation Task Force.

Our political class, always sympathetic, communicates that “I am here to help.” People leave the meetings encouraged believing that:

“Government, funded by my taxes, will solve my problems.” But nothing happens. The task force, formed in 2007, has never met.

Legislation authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the State Emergency Management Office addresses public facilities damaged or destroyed by flooding and assists private interests with loans and grants. But those agencies simply repair and assist. People want relief from recurring flooding events. They appeal to local, state and federal officials for help.

Decades of meetings

In my nearly 30 years with the flood-control unit of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, I have attended and participated in many such meetings. I understand the frustration of people who suffered loss and wish to be protected from future flooding and losses. Our political class and, to a lesser degree, federal and state bureaucrats, does not tell the public the full story of how government works — or more accurately, does not work — when addressing flood problems.

First, the state of New York has no standing authority to address a flooding issue without site-specific legislation. Only one project was constructed as a result of state legislation. That project is at Gang Mills in Steuben County, constructed following the devastating Agnes flood of 1972. The state flood-control authority, through the DEC, is limited to a cooperative program with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If the corps determines a project is feasible, the state program would fund up to 90 percent of the non-federal costs.

Years ago this program was very successful. More than 100 flood-control and erosion-protection projects were constructed, saving many billions of dollars in damage prevented. But federal cost-sharing changed 25 years ago, and that mandated very high community and state costs that greatly reduced the practicality of this program.

Secondly, the corps of engineers has studied the Mohawk River Basin time and again over the past 60 years. From these studies, flood-control projects were constructed in Amsterdam, Herkimer and at Holland Patent. Feasible projects were identified in Schenectady, Ilion and Whitesboro.

Schenectady rejected its project in 1975, and the other two projects died because of withdrawal of local support due to high federal cost-sharing assigned to the community.

The corps is again studying the Mohawk Basin. It initially made a “quick and dirty” study that was 100 percent federalyl funded to determine if a detailed cost-shared study was justified, and determined that further study was justified.

However, the focus of this study will include other issues besides flooding problems. Because of that, county soil conservation districts, and not the DEC, became the cooperator with the corps. There is no guarantee that any sort of feasible project will be identified from this study.

Multiyear process

Thirdly, the study process takes many years. Again, it is unfortunate that corps spokesmen will not tell the public that many years will pass before the study is completed and many more prior to a construction start — assuming a feasible project is identified.

To emphasize this reality, a flood-control project has been authorized for Elmsford in Westchester County since 1955, and construction has yet to start! Elmsford was devastated in the recent flood and even more so in the Hurricane Floyd event of 1999.

The restraints imposed by federal cost-sharing have resulted in only one flood-control project constructed in New York state in almost 20 years!

This reality should not be encouraging to any community leader looking for state and federal help to solve a flood-control or erosion problem.

So, the political class and bureaucrats will hold hearings and have meetings, but, unfortunately, community leaders and the public should not expect anything more from the task force than another report to be shelved.

Russ Wege is a retired engineer who lives in Glenville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion, Schenectady County

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