Schenectady County

Clogged culverts may have worsened Rotterdam Junction floods

Blockages caused a drainage system to fail after Rotterdam Junction was battered with rains from Tro

Under ideal circumstances, more than a dozen culverts running into the old Erie Canal basin would help water flow east from the old Mohawk River flood plain into its existing channel.

But many of the culverts are neglected and choked with debris. The canal basin itself is a haven for beaver dams, which obstruct the natural flow of water toward the river

“The beavers were actually building dams in the culvert pipes,” said James Longo, Rotterdam’s town highway superintendant.

These blockages caused the drainage system to fail after the hamlet was battered with rains from Tropical Storm Irene. Instead of runoff flowing into the old Erie Canal, the water backed up into the old Mohawk channel.

It’s unclear whether clear culverts and an unobstructed canal would have prevented the massive flooding that befell the hamlet in late August, but the clogged and congested passages certainly didn’t help.

Some low-lying areas along Lock Street were submerged in more than eight feet of water during the flood. Homes along Scrafford Lane and Isabella Street remained submerged for more than six days as a result of poor drainage.

“It wouldn’t have hurt [to have the culverts cleared],” Longo said. “The better your drainage system is, the more water it’s going to drain.”

Plan needed

Longo believes the culverts could be kept unobstructed if there was a plan to clear them. There is no maintenance plan, however, nor is there any clear map of who owns each of the culverts.

Some are clearly located within the town’s right-of-way, meaning Rotterdam is responsible for their upkeep. Another is located beneath the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail, placing it in Schenectady County’s charge.

The other culverts could belong to either the state Canal Corp. or Department of Transportation. Longo is now calling on officials from both agencies and the county to discuss a maintenance plan to ensure the hamlet’s drainage is better in the future.

“First of all, we want to establish who is responsible for what,” he said.

Canal Corp. spokesman R.W. Groneman said his agency no longer owns any of the old Erie Canal Basin. He said the property still under Canal Corp. control is generally small slivers that exist alongside the bike path.

“It seems to be very small parcels that connect from here to there,” he said.

Groneman was unsure if there are any culverts still under the Canal Corp.’s control. However, he said agency officials are more than willing to meet with the town to discuss the matter.

Spokesman Joe McQueen said Schenectady County officials are already taking a look at the drainage problem in Rotterdam Junction. He said the county only owns one culvert, which runs beneath the bike path.

“That has been clean, and we’re continuing to maintain it as we always have,” he said.

Likewise, DOT spokeswoman Carol Breen said her agency has already began discussions about drainage conditions in the hamlet. She acknowledged that DOT owns a number of culverts in the area, but was unsure of their locations.

“It really does have to be discussed by all the parties so we can agree what could and should be done there,” she said.

Ongoing issue

Rotterdam Junction residents were complaining about drainage years before the late-summer storms. Floods damaged property in the hamlet in both 2008 and 2009.

After the 2008 event, residents complained about a dysfunctional culvert beneath Pan Am Railways’ freight yard by Scrafford Lane. They argued the clogged culvert was allowing water to collect in the old canal instead of flowing toward a wider stretch of the basin along the bike path.

Ironically, this was an area where state officials had proposed building a tunnel to carry the bike path beneath the tracks in 2002, a project that would have created a large passage for water to move beneath the tracks during storm events. But funding for the estimated $6 million project was never authorized.

Isabella Street resident Dave Orologio said the tunnel likely would have prevented much of the devastating flooding that impacted his neighborhood and homes on Main Street. He said the state could also build a culvert beneath a low-lying area of Route 5S in lower Rotterdam Junction to help water flow from the flood plain back to the existing Mohawk channel.

“They definitely could redesign quite a bit of it,” he said.

He acknowledged a discussion between the involved agencies is a good beginning, albeit late. But he remains doubtful any substantive changes will follow.

“We’ve yet to see it happen,” he said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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