In calm weather, Dove Creek trickles its way from the town of Amsterdam south into the city of Amsterdam before it flows into the Mohawk River.
During heavy rain, however, the creek turns into a torrent that threatens private property and businesses as it flows over and under concrete flood walls that have fallen apart.
City officials say the problem is the responsibility of individual property owners, but those property owners question how a half-mile of infrastructure running the length of the creek could have ever been put together by individuals.
Following a finishing blow by tropical storms Irene and Lee last August, and failed efforts by the city to get the federal government to pay for the work, it’s clear Mother Nature will eventually determine when the creek’s in-city infrastructure has to be repaired.
Steadwell Avenue resident Richard Wert spoke to the Amsterdam Common Council last month and said he’s lost about 10 feet of his driveway to the creek, which flows beneath the crumbling flood wall alongside his home.
He told the council, “Every time it rains it’s worse.”
The Dove Creek overflow problem is not new; the creek jammed up with trees and other debris back in 2001. It backed up then, putting a moat around city resident Frank Vila’s Division Street home.
Vila, who has lived in the house for 35 years, said the problem has been getting worse.
Years ago, he recalls the city talking about building a retaining pond in the city’s Sassafras Park behind the former Bacon Elementary School. But that never happened.
The creek has undermined his shed in the backyard and now he sandbags the doors to his basement hoping to keep water out of the house.
His insurance company told him the problem isn’t covered by his homeowner’s insurance and that his property wasn’t big enough to secure flood insurance.
“You just get pushed away,” Vila said.
Vila thinks the volume of water seems to be increasing in the creek, something he attributes to development in the town of Amsterdam in the vicinity of where Dove Creek originates. More parking lots for that development, he said, prevents rainwater from filtering into the ground.
Retaining walls lining the creek were falling apart before tropical storms Irene and Lee hit last year, but those storms left in shambles what remained of structures controlling the creek.
Property owners have been asking the city for help. City officials in the past have considered tackling a repair project to stem the loss of property. A Dove Creek retaining wall rebuilding project made it onto a “wish list” Amsterdam Mayor Ann Thane drafted in hopes of winning some federal stimulus money back in 2008.
It was among several proposals aimed at improving the city’s storm water system; others included projects around Henrietta Avenue.
Then, Thane described a project as necessary “to avoid an emergency situation” because the banks of the creek were severely eroded and water was undermining foundations of several commercial and residential buildings.
A 2004 engineering study estimated replacing the retaining walls at $1.6 million — money the city doesn’t have.
The creek flows beneath Guy Park Avenue and Division Street, but City Engineer Richard Miller said parts of the creek’s path the city is responsible for don’t need any work.
He said he can only guess who built the stretch of flood walls that line the eastern edge of St. Mary’s Hospital property off Guy Park Avenue.
It leads beneath Guy Park Avenue, through backyards, beneath Division and East Main streets, state Route 5, the CSX Railway and then dumps into the river.
Miller said he believes the portion of the creek’s infrastructure the city is responsible for is limited to where it runs beneath the road. “In the right of way of the road, it becomes our responsibility. If those roads were to collapse, the city would respond,” Miller said.
He said the city applied for help from Federal Emergency Management Agency after Irene and Lee worsened the situation, but the answer was “no.”
“The municipality does not own that creek, therefore they cannot fund that,” Miller said.
Property owners alongside the creek own their property all the way to the center line of the creek, Miller said.Without grant funding, Miller said there are few options other than to fix the retaining wall and charge the property owners through their taxes.
“The taxes are high enough here now,” said Vila, who questions how individual property owners might tackle a project of this size.
If he were to fix the retaining wall within the boundaries of his property and the next property owner didn’t, it wouldn’t solve the issue. “[The water] would just get behind it and do the same thing all over again,” Vila said.
Further complicating the issue is that any work in waterways like Dove Creek is governed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and possibly other agencies, so permits would be needed.
“You can’t just start digging down there without any permits. You have to get certified drawings. They’ll tell you how they want it. Our hands are tied,” Vila said.
Vila is more concerned with the massive chunks of concrete and other debris in the creek — if they get moved by rushing water, they could block the culvert running beneath Division Street.
“Somebody’s got to do something,” Vila said.