In the fall of 2017, I visited the Vischer Ferry Dam with Scotia resident James Duggan.
A retired architect, Duggan had spent years studying the dam, and come to the conclusion that it suffered from a fatal design flaw: a lack of movable parts that causes water and ice to backup and flood nearby communities.
I found Duggan’s ideas persuasive, but they mostly seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Publicly, government officials either declined to comment on Duggan’s call to investigate the role the Vischer Ferry Dam plays in flooding, or dismissed it as unnecessary. Their remarks gave the impression that Duggan’s quest to alter the dam was completely misguided.
But it turns out he was on to something after all.
Last week Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a $300 million plan to “reimagine” the Erie Canal that recommends modifying the Vischer Ferry Dam with gates that can be lowered during a flood to convey water downstream, “reducing water levels in the Canal and thus mitigating flooding around Schenectady,” according to the official report from the Reimagine Task Force.
I caught up with Duggan late last week, and asked him what he thought of the state’s proposal.
“I’m quite pleased with it,” he said. “I did find it, in many ways, very satisfying.”
Duggan isn’t the only person who believes the Vischer Ferry Dam contributes to flooding in Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood and the area around SUNY Schenectady.
Over the years, I’ve heard from a number of residents who believe the same thing.
They’ve often expressed frustration over the state’s seeming refusal to consider modifying the massive concrete structure – often referred to as the Lock 7 Dam – that spans the Mohawk River.
The Reimagine Task Force’s recommendation vindicates their position, and also suggests Duggan was right to call attention to the dam’s design. He deserves a lot of credit for pushing this issue despite skepticism state and federal officials.
Unsurprisingly, there’s nothing in the task force report to indicate that the state’s newfound support for installing gates on the Vischer Ferry Dam represents something of an about-face.
But it almost certainly does.
The New York Power Authority, which oversees the dam, has said in the past that there’s no evidence that altering the dam will reduce flooding, while the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has said that no modifications were necessary.
The governor’s plan to reimagine the Erie Canal is extensive – a mix of tourism-boosting initiatives, improved irrigation for farmers, wetlands restoration and flood mitigation.
It’s bold and comprehensive, and recognizes that transforming the waterway for 21st century recreation and use requires reducing the flooding that threatens to destroy riverfront communities.
The plan also calls for specialized icebreakers to break up ice jams in problem areas, modifying the Mohawk River channel through dredging and filling to alleviate choke points that contribute to ice jam formation and deploying an early monitoring and warning system to better predict ice jam formation and flooding.
In Duggan’s eyes, the Reimagine Task Force plan shows that state officials are aware the Vischer Ferry Dam is a problem, and willing to address it.
“This is a breakthrough,” he said.
It’s also very good news for people who live in Schenectady’s most flood-prone communities.
And while it would have been nice to see the state unveil a plan for fixing the Vischer Ferry Dam years earlier, it’s nice to see them do so now.
Better later than never, as my mother always said.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]