During my career as the state floodplain program coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, I saw countless cases of inadequate planning for floods.
For example, focusing on the downstream Vischer Ferry Dam — to the exclusion of mitigation efforts such as elevating or, in extreme cases, demolishing flood-prone buildings within the Stockade — may waste an opportunity to significantly reduce the threat of flood damages in Schenectady.
I don’t wish to exclude any consideration of changes to the Vischer Ferry Dam.
In fact, a full engineering analysis of possible alternative designs for the dam would be helpful.
The analysis would have to look at changes to flood elevations upstream, as well as downstream, where Waterford is one of the most flood-prone communities in New York.
The current dam lacks movable segments or release gates, and was built only for navigation and power generation.
Installing water release gates on the dam would be extremely expensive.
Such work would have to be covered by New York’s taxpayers, since the dam’s owner, the New York Power Authority, does not have a power-related business purpose to invest in changes to the dam, other than to make certain that the dam is safe.
Even if the dam could be reconstructed, it is doubtful that this would solve Schenectady’s flooding problems.
The dam is about eight miles downstream of Schenectady.
While the river appears flat, it is not.
In fact, the flood elevation in Schenectady is from 9 to 14 feet higher than the flood elevation just upstream of the dam itself.
The dam influences water levels but does not control them. Water levels are also influenced by bridges, the elevation of the river bed, the width of the river, and, in the winter months, by ice formation and breakup.
Any river can only carry so much water without spilling into its adjacent floodplains.
Floods will continue to occur. The amount of flooding depends on geographic factors around the river and the amount of rain and/or snowmelt entering the river.
Tropical Storm Irene was far from the largest flood that we can see along this part of the Mohawk River. A warming atmosphere is already causing heavier rain events, with projections of a 20 percent increase in rainfall from heavy storms.
Unfortunately, many city residents and observers, including some whose comments have appeared in The Gazette, have latched onto the dam as the solution to flooding, while ignoring other necessary approaches to reduce flood risk.
The result is continued risk to the flood-prone parts of the Stockade below Front Street.
Some residents object to elevating historic buildings to reduce or eliminate the flood risk in the Stockade.
The opposition to mitigating flood prone properties, along with the hope and dream that there is an easy fix that somebody else can do and pay for, are threatening the health of the entire Stockade, and not just the flood-prone parts of it.
Flood damages and the escalating cost of flood insurance are already causing abandoned properties and absentee ownership.
The long-term result is deteriorating property values, squalid properties, and a declining neighborhood that threatens even the higher elevations in the Stockade.
Think of what happens to your own home if the adjacent block deteriorates.
Schenectady has a unique opportunity to significantly reduce flood damages in the Stockade, while increasing property values and the health of the entire neighborhood. Schenectady has already utilized a state grant to develop architectural standards for elevating historic homes.
A FEMA grant may provide funds to help people implement those designs. This is a unique opportunity that may never come our way again. If enough property owners take advantage of this opportunity, it can literally save the Stockade.
Focusing on the Vischer Ferry dam will not stop flood damages, and it will harm the Stockade.
William Nechamen spent the last 21 years of his 34-year state career as the floodplain office coordinator (Floodplain Management Section in the Bureau of Flood Protection and Dam Safety) within the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Between 2001 and 2017, he was chief of the DEC’s Floodplain Management Section. He is past chair of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, a nationwide professional organization representing over 15,000 flood risk related professionals. He currently serves as executive director of the New York State Floodplain and Stormwater Managers Association.