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Schenectady thinking ice jams as winter nears

Schenectady thinking ice jams as winter nears

Last winter produced a historic 17-mile ice jam
Schenectady thinking ice jams as winter nears
The Mohawk River at Schenectady in February
Photographer: Gazette file photo

SCHENECTADY -- Temperatures dipped below freezing last week, a not-so-pleasant reminder that winter is coming.

Some local residents and officials recall the flooding incidents from this past January and February after a historic, 17-mile long ice jam formed in the Mohawk River. Weeks of frigid weather that began at the end of December 2017 causing thick ice to form in the river, were followed by a period of above-average temperatures combined with heavy rain and snowmelt. As a result, the river ice broke into large chunks causing water levels to rise. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center recently released its winter weather outlook. It said there is a 50-percent chance temperatures in New York could be warmer than normal in December, January and February. The outlook also said there could be an equal chance this winter produces either less or more than normal precipitation.

However, it is not a forecast and will be updated monthly as fall continues, meaning the outlook could change.

Union College professor of geology John Gaver, who has been studying ice jams for more than 20 years, said the last decade of winters have been warmer than normal.

What used to happen during a traditionally cold winter was the ice would form on the river, then break up in the spring, only causing issues at the end of March.

With the warmer winters over the last few years, Garver said there have been multiple breakups of the river ice, causing multiple flooding incidents.

After last winter's historic ice jam, though, Garver said he and other experts studying ice jams learned a lot.

“In part, we’re asking different questions and we’re asking better questions than what we were asking before,” Garver said. “The other thing to keep in mind, though, is this is a systemic problem in the Mohawk, and there will be no silver bullet.”

While there haven’t been any physical changes made to the Mohawk River following last year’s historic ice jam, it has led to studies and discussions aimed at addressing the problem.

In March, the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced it was dedicating $500,000 to a flooding and ice jam study for the river's 147-mile main channel.

Earlier this month, the city of Schenectady also announced an $8.7 million effort to develop flood mitigation plans for the Stockade Neighborhood, some of which runs along the Mohawk River. 

It will include a meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 23, to not only obtain feedback from residents, but to answer answer any questions about the project, which is being funded through the Federal Emergency Management Association’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, as well.

Schenectady Fire Chief Ray Senecal, who was part of the emergency response to flooding caused by the ice jam last year, said after hearing about the winter weather outlook published by NOAA, he wouldn’t mind a warmer winter, especially if it means the river not freezing over at all.

“As far as predicting the weather, I think we can agree the weather is going to do what the weather wants to do,” Senecal said. “We’re prepared either way, as much as we can be.”

There are a few reasons Senecal hopes for warmer weather this winter other than the potentially reduced threat of ice jams. It could mean less water main breaks, fewer issues with the department's equipment and less furnace fires it would have to deal with.

“It certainly helps us, as far as winter goes, if there is warmer weather,” Senecal said.

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