Tons of debris the Schoharie Creek left in its wake after last year’s flooding will be turned into decent money for unemployed people, many of whom lost their jobs thanks to tropical storms Irene and Lee.
Officials are hiring them to clean up the creek, and asking people with debris-cluttered property along the creek to visit their town or village clerk’s office for an application and release form to give permission for the work.
The Neighborhood Rebuilding Corps Project’s Stream Debris Cleanup Team will have up until Sept. 30 to remove trees, tires, logs and other things left by the storms along a 37-mile stretch of the creek.
“As part of our recovery, we were concerned about the debris that would float in the creek and knew it needed to be removed. This is a way to get it done,” county Planning and Development Director Alicia Terry said Monday.
The project could represent a bit of a windfall to those who lost their jobs due to the flooding as well as others who have been unemployed long-term.
“For some people who have been unemployed for so long, it’s a real lifesaver,” said Gail Breen, director at the Fulton, Montgomery and Schoharie Workforce Development Board, which is handling the employment part of the contract with the state Department of Labor.
The work will be paid for by the National Emergency Grant program.
And since federal money is paying for the work, participating workers will be paid prevailing wage — roughly $26 per hour. It’s temporary work without benefits, but the laborers will also be paid additional money in lieu of benefits, for a total of about $40 per hour.
“It’s the wage that anyone else would be paid in that area under a government contract, so this is very good news for people,” Breen said.
Those participating in the program will be able to earn no more than $12,000 each, which equates to about seven weeks on the job, so officials expect as many as 60 people will be needed.
More than 100 people are already considered qualified, Terry said.
The state Department of Transportation, the National Guard and emergency contractors cleared stream channels in the weeks following the disaster.
But once high water receded and during the autumn and winter, tons of debris still left over was exposed, said Peter Nichols, stream program manager at the Schoharie County Soil and Water Conservation District.
“Now the problem is you have this debris that is sitting right along the stream channel that had water on it last August,” Nichols said. “The fear is if we get another flood, even a smaller flood than what we had on August 28, there’s a risk that debris can become mobilized.”
Several problems could result if the “floatable” debris gets picked up by the creek again.
For one, it could get trapped beneath bridges and in culverts, blocking the path of water in the creek and causing it to back up onto the shore, Nichols said. Or the opposite: The debris could block draining rainwater from getting into the creek, causing flooding on individual properties.
Debris sitting on the shore can also block the creek’s expansion during high-water events, eliminating the buffer Nichols said is important to help soak up floodwater.
If left in place, the debris will also inhibit the growth of grasses and shrubs along the shores of the creek which, with their root structures, help to keep the soil in place.
He said the risk is there even if another big flood doesn’t happen for 10 years.
“We don’t want to wait until then. We want to take care of it now,” Nichols said.
Residents have been calling the Soil and Water Conservation District office for months expressing concern about the debris that remains, he said. “It addresses an unmet need.”
If the work on the Schoharie Creek progresses quickly, the team is hoping to move on to the creek’s tributaries and continue on to address the Catskill Creek, Charlotte Creek and their tributaries if possible, Nichols said.