A local expert on the Mohawk River believes the proposed Mohawk Harbor project could increase flooding in the Stockade neighborhood unless changes are made.
John Garver, a professor of geology at Union College and a main researcher on local flooding, spent the last several weeks analyzing the project. He filed his concerns with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was soliciting public comment on the project and made public a great deal of data about the plans.
He told the corps it must require modifications to the plans, an opinion in sharp contrast to that of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which reviewed the plans before they were sent to the corps.
DEC officials said they were “satisfied” the plan would not increase flooding.
“We reviewed a flood-plain development hydraulics report for this project that demonstrated that it would not have a negative flooding impact, and we did not have any issues with the report,” said DEC spokesman Rick Georgeson.
Garver disagreed strongly, but made it clear he doesn’t want to kill the project.
“The development of the ALCO property is a welcome investment in the City of Schenectady because it will be an important economic engine, it will bring important tax monies, and the work on the site will help remediate three brownfields with significant soil and groundwater contamination,” he wrote at the opening of his letter.
But as designed, he said, it will cause problems.
First of all, the project would not reduce flooding as claimed by developer the Galesi Group, he said. The developer said it would dig deeper into the river and widen it to create more space for the water. But Garver said rivers don’t work that way.
“Channel deepening does not provide increased space for floodwaters because all of that new available space will be occupied by water before floodwaters rise: the depth of the channel is not relevant in flooded conditions,” he said.
The plans also call for a 11⁄2- to 3-foot rise in land elevation next to the river to put the new development out of the reach of floodwater. That’s where Garver predicts a bigger problem: When the river floods, it first spreads out over nearby land, called the floodplain.
“What is important is the availability of space on the floodplain, and hence the removal of a large sector of the active floodplain … reduces critical storage used during floods,” he said.
With less land to spread out the water, he said, floodwater would back up onto land in the historic Stockade neighborhood — where floods are already a serious concern.
Stockade Neighborhood Association President Mary D’Alessandro, who spoke as a resident, said Garver’s analysis had her worried.
“I’m not a hydrologist,” she said. “I think more studies need to be done.”
She said she hoped the corps would do its own research before coming to a final determination.
The corps intends to send the most relevant letters to the Galesi Group and the state Canal Corp. and DEC. Each entity will be expected to respond to the concerns, then the corps, which can also conduct its own studies, will decide whether the Galesi Group can build a harbor next to the river.
The corps has not announced any timetable for its decision and has not yet released to The Gazette comments collected during the public input period. The Galesi Group’s chief operating officer, David Buicko, said he has also asked for all the comments and has not received any yet, but he said he intends to build a project that won’t increase flooding.
“That’s why you hire people who are specialists: to tell you how to do it right,” he said. “It’s got to be done right. There’s many hundreds of millions of dollars invested here.”
He added that he believes the design won’t increase flooding, but emphasized that if the corps — or the engineers he hired as consultants — tell him to change the plans, he will.
“If they told us we had issues, we would address them,” he said. “We want to do it right. No one wants to do it wrong.”
In the end, he said, there should be a way to build a development on the river, safe from flooding, next to a harbor that can attract the many boaters who use the river during the canal season.
“We’re building a harbor on the Erie Canal. It’s exciting,” he said. “The easy way to do it is to not build a harbor.”
But he thinks a harbor is badly needed.
“We haven’t really tapped into the canal,” he said. “There are marinas, but not harbors with restaurants and other amenities. We want people to come from the river.”
Garver seemed to agree. He ended his letter by again praising the project — after suggesting ways to amend it to address his concerns about flooding, ice jams and potential soil contamination.
“The applicant should be applauded for putting the time, effort, and money into rehabilitating this large tract of land with such an exciting vision,” he wrote.
Garver was not speaking for Union College in his letter. The college has declined to take a stance on the project and the proposed casino that would be built next to it. However, the college said it was generally in favor of revitalization.