Montgomery County’s independent surveying team had a lot to report when they completed their three-week debris-mapping project along the Schoharie Creek.
Armed with a $150,000 Empire State Development grant, the county’s Board of Supervisors decided to hire international engineering company AECOM last month to perform a comprehensive debris assessment of the county’s 14-mile stretch of creek.
Officials were concerned trash and vegetation washed up by tropical storms Irene and Lee could be washed away again by future floods. Tree trunks and construction debris flowing downstream could clog Erie Canal Lock 12, backing up floodwaters into Tribes Hill and Fort Hunter.
“If there are 1,000 trees uprooted by last year’s flood, we need to know,” Public Works Commissioner Paul Clayburn said at the start of the process. “In an ideal world, they won’t find anything, and we can all go on our merry way.”
Five surveyors just finished trudging along the creek’s banks, logging all flood debris by type, size and proximity to the water. It will take another few months to organize all the data on GPS maps, but initial estimates suggest the reality is far from Clayburn’s idealism.
“There’s a lot of debris,” said engineering services director Roger Laime.
His team found a half-dozen freezers, a four-wheeler, even a pickup truck, all washed up by last year’s flood. There are also chunks of dimensional lumber from flood-damaged homes, but the vast majority of the debris is vegetation.
Uprooted trees aren’t in danger of polluting the environment. Unlike pickup trucks, they’re biodegradable, but the buoyant nature of wood does stand to complicate future floods.
“We surmise much of the debris could be re-suspended,” he said. County officials fear that could be dangerous downstream, especially at Lock 12.
While Irene’s power was devastating, it did have one upside: Many of the trees were deposited so far up the banks, it would take a weather event of equal or greater force to get them back into the creek. For that reason, the county has some time to organize a cleanup effort.
By the end of February, Laime will present a detailed debris map to the county, complete with a prioritized to-do list. He said small, light objects, as well as the larger logs near the creek, will be the top priority.
In an ongoing effort to clean up after Irene, county public works employees have been chopping up drifted logs into firewood-sized rounds and leaving them by the road for public use. Laime said the idea is good, but his team found so many downed trees, the county will likely have to bring in an outside contractor to chop them all up.
Many of the logs were deposited in farm fields and have since been pushed into piles to make room for crops.
“It actually makes it easier to get them removed,” he said, adding that his team will plot out the best way for the county to reach debris in tougher locations.
“You never know when the next 500-year storm will come along,” he said.