Scientists, political representatives and educators gathered Monday to discuss the potential that flows alongside Capital Region cities — its rivers — and to learn about the success one community is having with riverfront development.
More than 200 people attended the fourth annual Mighty Waters conference, an initiative of U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, focused on the upper Hudson River, the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal.
The event at Hudson Valley Community College included an introduction to the San Antonio River Walk — a waterfront development that’s turned into the greatest tourism draw in the state of Texas.
U.S. Rep Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, whose twin brother Julian serves as mayor of San Antonio, described the project, which has been 75 years in the making.
Shops, restaurants and hotels line both sides of the San Antonio River for 2.5 miles. Situated one story lower than the surrounding streets and begun with federal money in the 1930s, the attraction has grown to generate its own funding in the form of hotel occupancy tax and a rental car tax. So tourists fund further investments, rather than local property taxpayers, Castro said.
“This strong tourism magnet has allowed us to raise revenues in other ways,” he said.
A $360 million development project in the works will extend the River Walk’s offerings 15 miles to various historic sites, and the goal of getting more people to live there is seeing success, as condos and apartments are being developed, he said.
There’s been tension during its growth, however, with battles between longtime merchants on the street level and newcomers on the River Walk level below, Castro said.
A great deal of funding has been spent on riverfront development, but not a great deal of it has found its way to New York, leading to the need for a strategy to focus on the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, said John Cronin, chairman of the state’s Mighty Waters task force.
“We do not get anywhere near our fair share,” he told the audience.
The Environmental Consortium of Colleges and Universities is working together to develop a strategy that could help, he added.
Tonko is working to push the Hudson-Mohawk River Basin Act through Congress, promoting a holistic approach to monitoring the local waterways, improving an understanding of hydrology and planning an approach to smart development around the waterways.
Concern over the historic Hudson River blossomed into the Hudson River Estuary program; that concern since has expanded to the Mohawk River.
Union College began hosting a Mohawk Watershed Symposium not long after the Mohawk inundated riverside communities, including Canajoharie and Fort Plain in 2006, bringing scientists together to discuss their research — some of which indicated years ago that more water is flowing through the basin than there had been historically.
A focus from the state Department of Environmental Conservation followed, with the development of a Mohawk River Basin program that’s led to $800,000 worth of projects.
And a 14-county consortium of soil and water conservation districts is currently studying the entire Mohawk River basin in an effort to develop baseline data that can be used for planning and flood mitigation.
Union College Geology Professor John Garver, who developed the Mohawk Watershed Symposium, said Monday he sees real progress.
“I’m pretty encouraged. Things are moving forward,” he said.
In terms of flooding and what to do about it, state Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie, said work on the overall picture is a slow-moving process.
“What I see is everyone nibbling on the edges on this issue,” he said.
Lopez said he and state and federal officials, including U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, have continued meeting with the goal of developing a strategy from the Schoharie Creek outward — one that will require cooperation with communities that take on the Schoharie Creek’s water.
For places like Schoharie and Middleburgh, it’s not just historic flooding that can cause major disruption and damage.
“It’s also flash floods,” Lopez said.
Both villages — even as they continued rebuilding from the damage tropical storms Irene and Lee inflicted in 2011 — sustained more damage during flash floods this summer, due mostly to aged, ineffective drainage systems.
Lopez said the team is developing an application to be submitted for funding through the Hazard Mitigation Grant program to analyze factors contributing to Schoharie Valley flooding.
Following discussions at Hudson Valley Community College, attendees were provided tours of waterfronts in the Capital Region, including Albany’s Corning Preserve and the Waterford Flight of Locks on the Erie Canal.