Schoharie County

Schoharie community pushes flood mitigation

Work underway at reservoir
The site where the historic Blenheim bridge used to span the Schoharie Creek. A flood washed the bridge away in 2011.
The site where the historic Blenheim bridge used to span the Schoharie Creek. A flood washed the bridge away in 2011.

Flood prevention advocates are continuing to pressure local, state and federal agencies to incorporate additional safeguards against flooding at facilities they operate on the Schoharie Creek, which provide drinking water and electricity to downstate communities. 

The coalition, led loosely by Assemblyman Peter Lopez (R-Schoharie), is pressuring the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission to require the New York Power Authority to incorporate flood mitigation measures at their Blenheim-Gilboa power facility. They’re also working with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection on adding similar measures at the Schoharie Reservoir, which provides drinking water to the city. 

Tunnel work at Schoharie Reservoir

The DEP began tunnel work last week at the Schoharie Reservoir that will, in part, allow operators to respond better to potential emergencies and help mitigate flood risk for communities downstream of the Schoharie Creek.

The Schoharie Reservoir provides nearly 15 percent of New York City’s daily drinking water and is capable of storing 19.6 billion gallons of water. 

Work taking place there is part of a years-long process undertaken by DEP to improve dam infrastructure. Including flood risk mitigation devices in those improvements is something local elected officials and community stakeholders have been pushing for since Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. 

Schoharie County was one of the hardest hit areas in the state by Irene. Local officials estimated that a third of residential homes, and about a third of businesses, were destroyed in the village of Schoharie. The historic Old Blenheim Bridge spanning the Schoharie Creek was also washed away. 

The DEP last week began work with a 9.5-foot diameter tunneling machine that will bore 2,000 feet worth of new tunnel at the reservoir. The $142 million project will allow DEP to release water from the reservoir into the Schoharie Creek to facilitate dam maintenance, respond to potential emergencies, limit flood risk for downstream communities and support local fish and wildlife habitats. 

The new tunnel can be used to release water in response to snowpack accumulation in the Schoharie watershed, thereby making room in the reservoir to capture runoff during the spring melt. The project is slated to be complete in 2020. 

Community coalition

Since Irene, Assemblyman Lopez has helped lead a coalition of officials and residents who have organized around ensuring upstate dam facilities take an active role in flood mitigation and prevention.  

“The boring project itself is highly significant,” said Lopez of work at the Schoharie Dam. “This has been a long progression of identifying needs and improvements to protect life and property downstream.” 

He added that the job of advocating for flood prevention and preparedness is not done, and the coalition he loosely leads is working on other initiatives, like improving cellular telephone service in Schoharie, Greene and Columbia counties. While the improved cell service would benefit everyday people, Lopez said it will greatly improve communications between emergency responders in rural areas during flood emergencies. 

Pressuring the power authority

The coalition is also pushing the New York Power Authority to implement flood mitigation measures at the nearby Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Project, which provides hydroelectric power for New York City during periods of peak demand. 

NYPA is in the midst of a re-licensing effort with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the project, and submitted its final application for a 50-year license in late April. Lopez and others, including members of a grassroots organization called Dam Concerned Citizens, have been lobbying the federal agency to include flood mitigation measures as part of the re-licensing process. 

The group has also been communicating with NYPA officials on measures it would like to see implemented, but a member of Dam Concerned Citizens said none of the measures the group requested are in the state agency’s re-licensing application to FERC. 

“They’ve made no commitment to [flood mitigation] yet, but we’re hoping FERC will make that part of the license,” said DCC member Richard Mix. “NYPA said they’re open to talks about it, but we’d like to see something written into the license … that will obligate them to do flood mitigation.” 

Lopez said lines of communication between his group, DCC and NYPA are still open. His office met for four hours with community members and NYPA officials on April 13, a meeting Lopez said was productive.

Nevertheless, in testimony sent to FERC a week later, Lopez wrote that he and the coalition want the federal agency to require that NYPA examine the possibility of adding an emergency spillway to their facility at mandated five-year intervals over the course of their new license. They also want NYPA to consent to other flood mitigation practices insofar as it does not jeopardize the facility’s primary function of energy production. 

Lopez and the coalition also want NYPA to engage in regular communication with NYC DEP and the Schoharie County Board of Supervisors on flood mitigation and investments and activities. 

“My goal is to make [flood mitigation] part of FERC’s directive to the power authority as a function of their re-licensing,” said Lopez. 

A NYPA spokeswoman said the authority maintains its interest in working with Lopez and other community stakeholders on the issue of flood mitigation at their Blenheim-Gilboa facility. She added that the authority has taken into consideration community input that is part of the re-licensing process. 

“NYPA has appreciated the thoughtful comments and suggestions received as public comments during this period and is giving them careful review and consideration,” said the spokeswoman. 

Responses to those comments will be posted on the authority’s website next week, she added. 

“Whether formally, through FERC’s participatory [re-licensing] process, or informally, [NYPA] is always interested in hearing from stakeholders on issues of concern to the community,” spokeswoman said. 

FERC’s re-licensing process goes through September 2018, according to the federal agency. Milestones along the way include the filing of recommendations and preliminary conditions by FERC this August, and a draft environmental impact assessment and environmental impact statement next February. 

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