James Duggan’s first flood was Dec. 27, 1973. He was living on North Street in Schenectady’s historic Stockade neighborhood, and an ice jam near the community college sent the Mohawk River pouring into his basement.
There would be others. There was one in 1977. And one in 1996. There was the big one — tropical storms Irene and Lee filled basements not just in the Stockade but across entire swaths of upstate New York in 2011.
By then, he was long ago convinced man was to blame. Mother Nature always plays a role in flooding events, of course, but man has been known to make them worse. And to Duggan, a longtime architect now retired, it was man’s idea to build an immovable concrete dam at Lock 7 that was to blame for so many floods. He wasn’t alone in his suspicions. Others, like Glenville resident and retired engineer Russell Wege, have come to the same conclusion over the years.
So for nearly four decades, Duggan has lobbied the state to do something about the dam. And somehow, after years of trying, he has yet to lose steam. On Friday, he delivered a presentation at Union College’s annual Mohawk Watershed Symposium, where he raised the alarm yet again.
“I believe it is more important now than ever to do something about the dam,” he told The Daily Gazette this week. “All you have to do is talk with any hydrologists, anyone at the National Weather Service, and ask them how climate change will affect things. Flooding events are going to become more common than ever before.”
The dam stretches nearly 2,000 feet from Lock 7 on the Niskayuna side of the river, past Goat Island to the hamlet of Vischer Ferry in Clifton Park. It was built in 1913 to aid in river navigation and to help power a hydroelectric plant opposite Lock 7 in Vischer Ferry. But unlike the other steel dams built along the state’s Barge Canal, the Vischer Ferry dam was fixed — a 30-foot high concrete dam without any movable features.
Prior to the dam’s construction, the natural downstream slope of the Mohawk into Albany County drained most free-flow runoff without flooding nearby communities, Duggan said. Once the dam was built, water had nowhere to go but over the top of the dam or to swell all the way upstream to Lock 8 in Scotia — leaving riverside communities throughout Schenectady County at risk of flooding, he said.
“Steel dams have panels and gates that can open even just a few inches to allow water to dribble through or to rush through depending on what you want it to do,” he said. “There is a way to regulate the amount of water you want to pass through, especially during high flow events. Vischer Ferry relies solely on overflows.”
That might not be so bad if the dam didn’t cut the river at a kitty corner angle at an already-wide spot. The dam stretches about three times wider than the Mohawk’s width in Schenectady, and produces a backwater effect that increases water elevation all the way upstream to Scotia, Duggan said.
And each winter, a thick ice sheet forms behind the dam, creating greater potential for ice jams and ice jam floods.
Local residents and officials have raised concerns about the dam as far back as 1914, when the Mohawk River experienced its most devastating flood to date. Engineers as far back as 1925 blamed the dam for exacerbating flood events. And the Chamber of Schenectady County lobbied for a fix as far back as the 1970s.
Last fall, Wege called on the Canal Corporation to take a serious look at the dam and its impact on upstream flooding, especially in light of the multimillion-dollar riverfront redevelopment coming to Schenectady’s old Alco site.
“The cost of modifying the dam by cutting a weir notch 400 or more feet wide, equipped with gates similar to those installed on the Stewart Bridge Dam spillway on the Sacandaga River, would likely exceed $100 million,” he wrote in a Sunday Opinion piece for The Daily Gazette in September. “But the benefits to existing and proposed redevelopment projects would be great. Flooding events cannot be prevented. But a modification of the Vischer Ferry Dam would reduce major flood flow elevations … and would save tens of millions of dollars in damages prevented.”
The state Canal Corporation, which owns the dam, says it’s unable to fix the dam, even if it wanted to. Because it powers a hydroelectric plant, the dam falls under New York Power Authority jurisdiction, which is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
FERC spokeswoman Celeste Miller said Friday that the dam meets the commission’s safety engineering guidelines.
“Following Hurricane Irene, we did require modifications to the dam to improve its performance during a flooding event,” she said. “That work was completed last year and there are no further modifications required.”
Miller had no details Friday afternoon on what those modifications entailed.
After years of lobbying the state, Duggan said he’s only found one agency that seems to care about the dam’s impact on flooding: the state Department of Environmental Conservation. While they have no authority to fix the dam, Duggan said they seemed interested in conducting a hydraulic analysis of the river between Locks 7 and 8 that could throw some weight behind his persistent calls to action.
DEC did not respond to request for comment Friday.
“The message we’ve been getting is not that this isn’t a problem, but that this is an acceptable problem,” Duggan said. “It apparently depends on who’s suffering and whether they make enough noise. Are they a constituency who really matters? The governor talks about building back smarter and more resilient after Sandy, but this dam is totally contrary to that philosophy. It’s a dumb concrete dam from another era. And looking at where this community is headed, we just cannot continue the way we are.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bethany Bump at 395-3107, [email protected] or @BethanyBump on Twitter.