It looks as if the snow and ice in upstate New York won’t be melting any time soon, but it will happen eventually. And when it does, New York City’s Catskill reservoirs, including the one created by the Gilboa Dam, are going to be ready — readier than ever before. That’s thanks to a fancy new, $8 million data collection and modeling system the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which operates the reservoirs, has developed in partnership with the National Weather Service.
In the past, the operators knew how much water the reservoirs contained at any particular time, but could only roughly guess at how much more was coming. They were using data on snowfall, rainfall, stream flows and levels from the previous year.
That wasn’t such a big deal (at least to them) because the operators’ chief concern — only concern, really — was making sure city residents had a steady supply of clean water. They resisted calls by the locals, concerned about frequent flooding, to also think in terms of flood control, releasing water when levels were high and more was expected soon from heavy rains or quick thaws.
They continued to resist in 2005, when their engineers discovered that erosion had undermined the dam and it no longer met safety standards. And the next year, when the dam was stabilized by driving new anchors into the bedrock.
But then came serious floods in 2006 and 2007 in Schoharie County, and in 2011 the devastating floods of Tropical Storm Irene. And in 2012, New York City got its own taste with Superstorm Sandy.
The reservoir operators got the message, from the locals, state officials and Mother Nature, and the multiyear $350 million Gilboa dam reconstruction project now under way will include floodgates and a tunnel bypass that will allow water to be safely released into Schoharie Creek.
The data collection and modeling system will be a key part of this. It uses stream and snowpack gauges, which give real-time information, and National Weather Service precipitation forecasts to assess the threat of flooding. In a separate program in Schenectady County, gauges have been installed at Locks 7 and 8 and Freemans Bridge, as well as a webcam at Freemans Bridge, to give such information about the Mohawk, whose levels are strongly affected by the Schoharie Creek.
And more gauges could be coming to upstate New York, with the federal government just having announced that it will be adding $6 million to the nationwide stream gauge program this year. New York City officials aren’t the only ones who have gotten the message. Better to spend millions for prevention than billions for reconstruction.