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Jessica Nicosia - James Tierney, assistant commissioner of Water Resources at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, moderated the first panel of speakers at the Mohawk River Flood Management Update held at Herkimer County Community College on Thursday. He said flood management is really a misnomer; we can’t really stop the floods.”

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Plans outlined for handling floods

Thursday, September 27, 2012 - Updated: 8:46 AM

By JESSICA NICOSIA

For the C-S-E

HERKIMER — The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation recently held a public meeting at Herkimer County Community College to address the results and ongoing mitigation efforts in the wake of flooding from Tropical Storm Irene and the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee in August 2011.

Representatives from various state agencies and organizations, including the National Weather Service, the United States Geological Survey, and the Department of State, made brief presentations followed by question and answer sessions during the Sept. 13 meeting.

“It’s part of a whole program to address flood hazard mitigation, you know, reducing risks,” said James Tierney, the DEC assistant commissioner for water resources, who moderated the first set of panelists Thursday. “We’ve been going out to the communities, having lots of conversations, but now we have to ... show them where the at-risk facilities are (and) what are the measures communities can do as a community, to protect themselves. And it’s part of building a partnership in the Mohawk Valley with how we move forward, to get people out of harm’s way.”

Tierney mentioned the “Mighty Waters” work group put in motion by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as an example of partnerships between state agencies and Mohawk Valley communities. This task force, led by the DEC Commissioner Joe Martens and Secretary of State Cesar A. Perales, formulates efforts in the Mohawk Valley related to community revitalization, economic development, flood hazard risk reduction, and environmental sustainability. The group aligns with U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko’s “Mighty Waters” initiative for waterfront revitalization along the Mohawk River.

The first panel of speakers gave presentations on the statistics and results of last year’s flooding, also touching on the floods in 2006.

“The one thing we can count on in the future is that there are going to be floods,” said Robert Singer, a project manager at Ecology and Environment. Singer is working on identifying infrastructure that is at-risk for future flooding along the Mohawk River from Herkimer to Schenectady County.

“Flood management is really a misnomer; we can’t really stop the floods,” said Tierney. “During Hurricane Irene the level of flow just over the Gilboa Dam was about half of what goes over both the American and Canadian sides of Niagara Falls every day.”

Tierney said that due to climate change, the impact and power of storms is increasing and flood mitigation efforts and risk management is increasingly necessary. Recognizing this need, the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave the DEC a $100,000 grant to identify and take measures to protect at-risk facilities on the Mohawk River flood plain.

“The tempo and the pace of flooding in the Schoharie Valley is changing in a very dramatic way,” said John Garver, a professor of geology at Union College. “The system is dynamic and changing in a very, very dramatic way, and we need to think how we will respond.”

Garver went over the history of flooding in the Mohawk Valley and what that can teach people about what will come in the future.

Other panelists included Britt Westergard, a senior service hydrologist at the National Weather Service who went over the weather patterns from Irene and Lee; Howard Goebel, a canal hydrologist at the Canal Corp. who looked at the damage done to the dams along the Mohawk; and Gary Firda, a surface water specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey who said that water levels measured in streams and rivers during the floods altered the data to raise the water level that would be considered a “100-year flood.”

During the question and answer section, Fort Plain Mayor Guy Barton asked “who controls gates up and down the Mohawk River.”

“I need an answer. What’s the point of having this here today?” he said. Goebel, whom Barton was addressing, did not provide an answer during the session, but talked to Barton during the break.

“They just avoided every question I asked,” said Barton, although he acknowledged that Richard Lord, who spoke on federal grant programs available for hazard mitigation during the second session, was helping Fort Plain secure money for flood management projects.

The second session of the flood mitigation forum focused on what had been done and was being done to prevent and protect from flooding in the Mohawk Valley in the future.

Lord said that every dollar spent on flood mitigation avoids four dollars in future damages. He explained what kinds of projects the federal government pays for, and which ones they cannot.

Other speakers outlined the National Flood Insurance Program, flood ordinances that local communities could create, and plans for at-risk infrastructure in the river’s watershed area.

A. J. Smith, an environmental analyst for the DEC, explained ideas for a flood plan that would aim to give people in the Mohawk Valley as much time as possible before a flood to protect equipment and belongings from the water, lessening the effects on local businesses.

“I find it extremely exciting to find that we’ve created an awareness of what happens in the Mohawk Valley and where we’re heading,” said Smith. “How are we going to respond to these changes?”

     

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