Flooding in the Schoharie Valley downstream of the New York Power Authority’s hydroelectric project was lessened, not worsened, by the actions of staff at the facility, a NYPA official said Thursday.
Lynn H. Hait, NYPA’s central New York regional manager, addressed a crowd of roughly 160 people at the Schoharie Hotel and Suites to outline details of the pumped storage power project and review the authority’s response to record flooding that swept through the valley Aug. 28.
Hait provided an overview of the system, built on the Schoharie Creek to create power by pumping and dumping water up and down between upper and lower reservoirs in a massive tube with four turbines at the bottom.
He then outlined the actions NYPA staff took to protect the lower reservoir’s dam from collapsing — steps he said prevented some of the water from crashing down the valley.
Hait’s remarks were followed by a barrage of questions and comments from residents and officials. Some people were venting, others were talking about another dam — the Gilboa Dam upstream — and still others said they just didn’t believe what they were hearing. The tone of the meeting was civil, without hectoring from the audience, but the public speakers appeared almost uniformly critical or at least skeptical of NYPA.
“Where did the tidal wave come from?” asked Dona Waszczak, who lost her home in the town of Esperance to the Schoharie Creek on Aug. 28.
Waszczak after the meeting said she felt as though Hait wasn’t answering questions directly and said she doesn’t believe NYPA began taking action quickly enough to help people downstream.
Hait said NYPA stopped generating power at Blenheim-Gilboa on Aug. 26, two days before the flood, and weather forecasts didn’t indicate such a severe amount of rainfall was heading right toward the Catskills.
Esperance resident Judy Crommie was more blunt when she got up to the microphone.
“The bottom line is you’re gonna kill us all,” Crommie said to Hait.
Throughout his remarks, Hait stressed the power facility was built to generate power, not to control flooding.
A review of what happened, according to NYPA, shows more water came into the system than went through it because employees on the scene were pumping water back up to the upper reservoir.
“We were able to clip the peak,” he said.
Though Hait spoke with a matter-of-fact tone, his description of the tense moments employees faced when the generator that opens the dam’s gates failed made it clear there was a close call there.
The dam that holds back the lower reservoir’s 5 billion gallons is made of earth, not concrete or stone. It’s critical that the reservoir not flow over the top of that dam. That could produce a catastrophic washout.
“Water overtopping an earthen dam is not good,” Hait said.
There are three gates used to release water from the dam, he said.
In the absence of primary power for the facility — provided by National Grid — workers employed the primary generator system, which began opening all three gates at once.
They made it only 3.5 feet before the generator failed. A second generator worked successfully.
Hait said at that point, the gates were being opened one at a time, and only at a pace of “one foot per minute, one gate at a time.”
State Assemblyman Pete Lopez told Hait he appeared to be minimizing the importance of the failure of the generators, a situation he suspected was more “chaotic and emotional” than NYPA was letting on.
Hait said the authority is now planning a sixth backup system, and now all employees there will be trained how to open the gates with regular and backup systems.
NYPA did submit a report on its actions during the storm to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates the system, Hait said, but the authority’s legal team has advised NYPA not to release that to the public. He suggested those interested in that report ask FERC for a copy.
Other speakers asked for NYPA’s assistance in a variety of ways, either by helping to improve local communication capabilities or by outright helping to rebuild with money.
Schoharie Town Supervisor Gene Milone said he’s been contacting officials about getting the entire stretch of the Schoharie Creek dredged to make more room for floodwaters. He asked Hait to get NYPA behind that idea.
“It’s going to lessen the threat of flooding to our residents,” Milone said.
Hait said he’d make sure all requests were considered by the authority, but made no commitments.