Schenectady County

Tugboat breaks ice on Mohawk River, jams still a concern

The Western Gateway Bridge and the ice-covered Mohawk River are seen from the foot of N. Ferry Street in Schenectady on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022.
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The Western Gateway Bridge and the ice-covered Mohawk River are seen from the foot of N. Ferry Street in Schenectady on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022.

This winter has been significantly colder than last winter, resulting in one of the heaviest ice buildups in years along the Mohawk River in Schenectady County.

John Garver, a geology professor at Union College, said that in the river’s so-called Schenectady Pool — the area between the Vischer Ferry Dam and Erie Canal Lock 8 in Rotterdam — there is about a foot of ice on the surface.

“That’s the most ice we’ve seen in years,” he said. “So, when we end up having to worry about ice jams, we worry about a couple things, but the primary consideration is how much ice is there.”

Ice jams on the Mohawk can result in flooding — sometimes heavy — in parts of Schenectady County, especially Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood.

As part of a program under the direction of the state’s Canal Corporation and Power Authority, the tugboat Margot has been slowly moving along a portion of the river with a single mission: break the ice on the surface to potentially lessen ice jams. Officials with the program, now in its second year, place a heavy emphasis on the word potentially.

“The ice breaking will not eliminate the ice-jam hazard,” said Garver, who served on the New York Power Authority’s task force working to address ice jams on the waterway.

“We still consider this a pilot program, said Shane Mahar, a spokesman for the Power Authority and Canal Corp.

He said the program is about trying different interventions along the river to mitigate the risk of flooding from ice jams. That means tons of data collection on water flows along the river, weather conditions, ice buildup and so much more, Mahar said.

While the boat has been out several times a week, there is no set schedule for when it goes out on the river, Mahar said.

Garver said it’s important to note that the tugboat cannot go further than Lock 8 because the river is not navigable in the winter.

The canal, which is primarily used for recreational purposes now, sees large sheets of ice form in the winter. Without enough room for it to flow, the ice jams, the water rises and flooding occurs.
However, Garver said that the warmer temperatures this past week have helped weaken the ice somewhat.

He said the best kind of weather to get the ice to melt in place without any relative problem is maple sugaring weather.

“So freezing nights, above freezing during the day with a lot of solar radiation, a lot of sunshine,” he said.

The National Weather Service website shows temperatures dipping into the high teens, low 20s to start next week, but picking up to 50 on Friday.

But it’s still pretty much a watch-closely-and-see-what-happens situation, Garver said.

“I hope it doesn’t flood,” said Suzanne Unger, the president of the Stockade Association.

Some homes in the Stockade have dealt with flooding over many years. Now, residents are pushing for the city to move forward with relocating the historic homes that make up the neighborhood. The association recently sent a letter to city officials urging them to continue to push forward on the project.

Schenectady City Mayor Gary McCarthy said that the project is still being developed.

“Not everyone on the street has signed off on it,” he said.

He said the city is looking into all funding aspects for the project.

Other areas at risk for flooding include low-lying areas in Rexford, Alplaus, Glenville and Scotia. Upriver areas in Rotterdam Junction could also be affected.

The United States Geological Survey has a ice jam monitoring network that people can access at https://www.usgs.gov/centers/new-york-water-science-center/science/mohawk-river-ice-jam-monitoring?qt-science_center_objects=0.

People can also follow the Mohawk Watershed on twitter using the handle @MWatershed for updates.

Categories: News, Rotterdam, Schenectady County

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