Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Flood in Our Future

All the Midwest is awash and the damage is unbearably familiar. If you haven’t seen the footage on the news, stay in Saratoga County long enough and you’ll be able to film it for yourself. Because back in the quiet backrooms of the Hudson River Regulating District (HRRD), they’ve drawn up a perfect plan for the Perfect Flood.

Before the Great Sacandaga Lake was filled in 1930, the NY legislature created the HRRD and gave them a mission in 1922—

“The Regulating District’s operations at the Conklingville Dam alternately block or release waters in the Hudson River to help prevent flooding during periods of high water flow and augment river flows during periods of drought.”

And so it did its single job, FLOOD CONTROL...for sixty years. In the 90's a new breed of owners came to the remote shores. These people didn't like the ways of us old-timers, owners who've grown used to moving docks as the lake level was drawn down. Planners dreaming of Restaurants and Marinas did not like the prospects of receding waterfront views. Sacandaga River Rafting, a growth industry in an area that needs every job it can get...the river runners lobbied the HRRD to store tons of water for regular & reliable brief releases. So the rafters launch at a predictable hour and they actually ride a "bubble" or released rushing water.

That was all a lot for HRRD to ponder. So in 2000, the HRRD re-wrote their legal "purpose." New missions were quietly added to the 1922 "FLOOD" statute--

In addition, the District will target Great Sacandaga Lake elevations that are higher than historic levels for enhancement of fall lake recreation, release water from reservoir storage to enhance hydroelectric generation, and will provide for Sacandaga River whitewater recreation and other objectives.

Not big news. Not with the printer's ink. But strange things started happening.
The changing story is told on the lake's daily website that records the water level and any strange flood waters that race over the spillway... creating a magnificent little Niagara Falls. So what is the 78-year history of flooding--

"Discharge over spillway, part or all of several days in 1983, 1990, 1993, 2000, 2003-2004 (only spillage since dam completion in 1930)."

The site makes no mention of 2006, the year when new daily high water records were established for 270 days. The year when the dam did the Niagara overflow performance on more than seven days. Even in the summer.

Up on the Sacandaga, a troublesome spring thaw flood is a sure thing. The risk will be small unless floating docks and boats and trees clog the VERY small opening under the little bridge at the dam. That narrow chute was a HUGE design flaw. If the ancient rusted security boom strung across the lake surface near the dam were to fail, you've got a lot of junk headed for a narrow opening.

But the more likely CATASTROPHIC FLOOD will come due to one of our more recent climate change issues, the MASSIVE but localized summer storms of record-setting rainfalls. They've struck all over New England in the last ten years...but NOT the Sacandaga watershed. Not yet.

While the surface of the lake itself is on 41.7 square miles, the mountainous terrain that drains into the Great Sacandaga is a staggering 1,044 square miles.

When this region is hammered by the kind of rains that have hit Northern Lake George, the Mohawk Valley, New Hampshire and Connecticut...well, we've been lucky enough to dodge a bullet.

The Sacandaga will flood and top the Conklingville dam and then the tiny Stewart's Bridge dam just downriver. Next, the torrent hammers the waterfront homes on the Hudson at Corinth... homes and lawns which add more solid wreckage to the raging waters. Next, the Hudson tops the old IP dam in Corinth...and then it comes to the ancient dam at Spier Falls.

The first Spier dam collapsed back in the '20s. The dam that's there now was recently reinforced... you make due with what you've got. But the Federal Energy Regulating Commission (FERC) wasn't overly imporessed. In fact, FERC demanded that the planners for the County Water system change their original design so as to prepare for "a catastrophic breach of the dam at Spier Falls." So the engineers of the County Water system moved the main pump house up to higher ground…above the projected high water mark in a post-Spier Hudson.

The Spier damn spans the wide Hudson at a point of an extreme vertical drop. It's not inconceivable that the Sacandaga flood and the battering docks & boats & picnic tables & trees will cause it to fail. And THAT massive wall of water will wreak havoc on Glens Falls, Ft. Edwards, Halfmoon, Troy...even Albany. It'll be national news and a Federal disaster area.

There Will Be Flood.
There will not be any Academy Awards.


  1. While i agree that flood control is important, look how quickly the people who benefit run from paying for the service. Tourism pays the bills... they tax the bejezus out of those "lake front" owners even thought they own no lake frontage. So why wouldn't the folks who pay get what they want before the folks who won't? And the flooding is really only a problem in the early summer when the lake level is high. once it gets down a few feet by July 4th weekend, it would take crazy events to get it back up to over the spillway. They just need to drain a little faster early on, and then drain the minimum to keep boaters and fishers happy.

  2. Well said, thoughtfully composed. It's a damn shame that YOU'RE not sitting on the HRBRRD. If the downstate Court ruling sticks, "our" lake owes nothing to the damn Hudson hydro dams... although their owners may in time learn that the Sacandaga water at Hadley meets the Hudson to contribute/control 33% of the Hudson volume. You're endgame is also on the money- Release FAR MORE in Spring and June, then monitor the level with the human eye and common sense, then draw it down in Fall.


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