Too Much Water And Privatized Turbines

September 15, 2011

How the late summer floods in the Hudson Valley were greatly exacerbated by mismanagement, and how the blogger found religion in the middle of Great Lake Sacandaga

You might recall that before we got all these recent hurricanes and floods we had Summer. The sun was shining, the air was warm and our waterways were reasonably calm and predictable. It was vacation time before all the waters of hell broke loose.

I’m happy to say that before the weather went extreme The Wife and I got in our two weeks in August up at Great Lake Sacandaga. We had been contemplating adding a third week of vacation this year, but that didn’t work out. Which was fine, because if we had stayed at Sacandaga one more week we would have experienced the Great Flood of 2011 during our vacation, and that would have been no fun.

Storm Over Broadalbin, Great Lake Sacandaga Storm Over Broadalbin, Great Lake Sacandaga

Believe me, Lake Sacandaga has plenty of interesting weather all its own. The big artificial lake, five miles wide in the middle, strongly affects the local weather and by extension the weather of surrounding areas. I have to say that after many summers of quietly observing how this big feat of hydraulic engineering affects the local weather patterns, I’ve decided that anyone who repeats the claim that human activity does not affect the weather of our planet is an idiot.

Twice before on this blog I’ve attempted to explain the significance of this lake and the bizarre politics around it. Sad to say, all I managed to do was write two long, rambling, nearly unreadable essays that tried to explain too much. The pictures I used were pretty good, though.

Briefly, Great Sacandaga was created in 1930 to control the volume of water flowing down the Hudson River. Some forty percent of the water that ends up in the Hudson passes through this lake. Storing the water in this reservoir and allowing it to pass through the dam nice and evenly keeps the Hudson River levels steady, and helps prevent salt from moving upriver during dry spells.

Hudson River Black River Regulating District Offices, Managers Of Great Lake Sacandaga Hudson River Black River Regulating District Offices,
Managers Of Great Lake Sacandaga

For decades the system worked very well, but in 1999 disaster struck. The electric generating turbine at the Conklingville Dam, along with a second turbine at the Hadley Dam farther downstream, were privatized. To serve the speculators who now control the turbines, the startlingly corrupt managers of the lake stopped emptying out the lake when they were supposed to. In effect, for the last ten or twelve years Great Lake Sacandaga has been rendered useless as a flood control reservoir.

You see, the managers of the lake signed a contract. They guaranteed the privateers that water would fall over the dam to spin their turbines, or else the State of New York would have to pay the privateers for every day that their turbines do not turn.

Today the managers of the lake deliberately keep the water level of the lake much too high all year round. They are so terrified of having to pay money to the turbine privateers that the lake can no longer hold flash flood waters when it needs to. That’s why the City of Albany waterfront and those of all the other communities of the Hudson Valley flooded in 2006, and again in 2011.

Boats Parked At Lock 3 On the Waterford Flight While The Canal Is Closed Boats Parked At Lock 3 On the Waterford Flight
While The Canal Is Closedd

I listened to the corporate media explanations for the Flood of 2011 with grim amusement. I didn’t hear one word about Great Sacandaga being overfilled. The problem, they said, was too much water coming from the west, from the Mohawk River. The flood water, they told us, came from the Schoharie Valley to the west, which indeed was a disaster all by itself.

Sure, record amounts of water came to the Capital District from the west. But that shouldn’t have mattered much to us. The flooding disaster happened because the system that is supposed to control flooding from the north has stopped functioning altogether.

The truth is that only 18 percent of the water that goes into the Mohawk River comes from the Schoharie Creek. (The Mohawk flows into the Hudson north of Troy.) According to experts the amount of Schoharie water that flows into the Mohawk is increasing. But that still means the water from the Schoharie Creek only constitutes a small part of the water in the Hudson River.

No, you can’t blame the Schoharie for wrecking the Hudson Valley this year. Like I said, the Great Lake Sacandaga was built to control the Sacandaga River but now flood control has become an afterthought. Today the prime function of the lake is to provide revenue for the turbine operators.

The Blogger's Kayak Parked In The Little Kenyon Islands, Great Lake Sacandaga The Blogger’s Kayak Parked In The Little Kenyon Islands,
Great Lake Sacandaga

The other complaint I have about mismanagement of Great Lake Sacandaga is personal. See, when they don’t empty out the lake in the summer like they’re supposed to, then the beach at the place where we stay becomes narrow. We find this very inconvenient when we’re trying to do vacation stuff.

Okay, so that’s a trivial complaint compared to other problems caused this year alone by privatization of the Sacandaga turbines, such as destroyed houses, several deaths and billions of dollars of damage. But hey, narrow beaches loom large for me. Somehow the drowned parks and streets in the City of Albany are all tied up in my mind with our undersized stretch of vacation beach in August.

However, our narrow beach is actually a small symptom of another problem caused by too high water in the lake. The too high water is eating away the shoreline and destroying the islands. In addition docks, boats and other property are at greater and more frequent risk of damage and destruction.

Windstorm On Great Sacandaga, August 2011 Windstorm On Great Sacandaga, August 2011

For example, one evening near the end of the first week of our vacation in the early part of August we had a serious windstorm on the over filled lake, winds of 60 to 70 miles per hour. The rain was minimal so I went down to the shore to take photos of our neighbor’s docks and boats being wrecked by the waves.

I’ve got to say it’s grand fun to watch somebody else’s property get wrecked by out of control forces of nature. Our collection of human powered boats (ours and those of the other family we vacation with) were safely settled up the too small beach. The Wife’s ultra light canoe, which tends to blow away in high winds, was jammed safely under the back of the cabin.

Docks Tossed By Waves On Great Sacandaga, 2011 Docks Tossed By Waves On Great Sacandaga, 2011

The place where we stay has a little dock in the water that rocked about in the wind and waves, but it was safely lashed to the rocks so it only drifted a bit. But the neighbor’s offshore diving dock broke loose from its mooring and for a moment threatened to crash into our dock. The neighbor and I waded out to the loose dock and guided it safely to shore.

In the middle of this crisis I ordered The Wife to go driving into the furious gale to go buy ketchup for dinner. Yes, I am that sort of imperious chauvinistic heartless male that would send his (sickly) woman into a near hurricane to buy condiments. I wished her luck and sincerely hoped that despite the raging storm she could make it back with the ketchup.

But as soon as The Wife got out onto the main road she could feel no wind whatsoever. She reported that the air was hot, humid and stifling. This is what, a thousand feet from the lake or something like that? Like with a hurricane, those tremendous winds had everything to do with the water and nothing to do with the land.

The Five And Dime In Northville, NY The Five And Dime In Northville, NY

This vacation I spent a lot of time in my kayak observing and contemplating the lake. (I always wear my life vest.) I made one major journey to Northville, about two and a half hours each way (ten minutes by car.) And one day around Noon three of us paddled in our boats to the nearest lakeside eatery for lunch, a half hour or an hour depending on the strength and direction of the currents at the moment.

Drifting by myself in my kayak in the middle of the lake, I have observed that there is usually a great dome of warm air sitting on top of the water. The walls of the air dome rise up along the shoreline, and the roof of the dome rises way high into the sky but not as high as the stratosphere. The dome is often surprisingly resilient, with different weather inside the dome from the outside.

Many’s the time I’ve watched dark, threatening clouds march down from the Adirondack Mountains to the north. When the clouds hit the dome of air they usually slide either to one side of the lake or the other, sometimes pouring rain on the shore while the middle of the lake remains sunny and blue. Sometimes the clouds squeeze way up over the top of the dome and sprinkle warm rain on me in my kayak, which is usually quite refreshing.

Clouds Over The Northville Bridge Clouds Over The Northville Bridge

Every so often a big fast-moving dark mass of clouds will tear right into the dome of air protecting the lake and drop a serious storm on the water. If you think about it, the lake was built because of this frequent procession of clouds descending down the Sacandaga River Valley. It’s the moisture from these mountain clouds that makes the Hudson River deep and navigable all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to Troy.

One early afternoon I was drifting lazily around Big Kenyon Island, about an hour from our camp. I turned my boat, looked north and saw a giant thick storm advancing fast over the Northville Bridge like the winds of Mordor. In horror I watched it tear into the air dome and come right at me.

I said something a whole lot earthier than “oh my goodness” and started paddling like my life depended on it. That’s only a slight exaggeration. I wasn’t all that afraid of the wind and rains (not too much) but my real fear was lightning. I couldn’t see any thunderhead clouds or hear any thunder (which is why I didn’t notice the storm advancing) but that didn’t necessarily mean no sudden massive electric discharges across my sorry boat bound butt.

Ducks Attack On Great Lake Sacandaga Ducks Attack On Great Lake Sacandaga

As I frantically paddled I kept glancing back as the storm barreled toward me over the water. But just before it caught me the storm mass suddenly veered west and passed to my right. It seems that the air dome over the lake had become resilient again, reasserting itself so to speak.

The storm settled next to me. There was now a perfect line of demarcation across the water. On one side of the line was darkness, wind, boiling lashing waves and a sprinkle of rain. On the other side of the line was blue sky, relatively calm water and a light breeze.

By strange chance the line of demarcation ran ahead of me in the direction of our camp, my destination. I followed the line on the sunny left side, me paddling hard almost nonstop on my right so as not to be sucked over the line into the storm. If I rested even for a few seconds the boat would slide sideways and backwards into the chaos.

How long did I madly paddle along that line, twenty minutes? I followed the line in the water so long that I began to feel hopeful for the future. My future. That’s about when the air dome gave way and suddenly the storm rolled right over me. Oh my goodness.

Blue Heron Watches Me . . . Blue Heron Watches Me . . .

So this was it, no fooling around now. The waves came at me mainly from two directions, which made it almost impossible to predict the whitecaps that smashed over the boat. Normally if one is alert one can ride over the waves and stay dry, but all I could do was try to react and keep the kayak tracking straight through the swells.

. . . Then Strolls Into The Brush . . . Then Strolls Into The Brush

The rain came down so hard I was effectively blinded. I could see only dark and light through the water washing across my face. The thick dark line in front of me, I knew, was the shore. My plan was to keep the boat moving toward the thick dark line. To get the most out of this experience, with each stroke of my paddle I screamed. I rather enjoyed doing that, strange to say.

My thought was no lightning. Please, no lightning. I called for help from everybody I could think of. “Jesus! Buddha! Allah! Yahweh! Krishna! Earth Mother! Zeus! Thor! The Bottom Line! The Invisible Hand of the Market Place!” I really did that. I prayed to the Invisible Hand of the Marketplace to save me from electrocution.

Under the circumstances that was all the gods I could think of. Interestingly, I didn’t call on Satan, probably out of habit. Nor did I call on Baal, Mammon or the Golden Calf. I figure I covered all those guys when I prayed to The Bottom Line.

Well, one of those gods must have been the right one (Zeus with the thunderbolts?) because gradually the rain lightened, the veils of water parted and behold! our camp was right there in front of me. Absolutely amazing. The rain ceased as I approached the shore. As I pulled my kayak up the beach in the sunshine I could see the storm blowing across the lake toward Broadalbin.

The Wife and our friend Lucy were on the shore, excited. “You just missed it!” they shouted. “One half of the beach was pouring rain, and the other half was sunny! It went on forever! It stopped raining just before you arrived!” I agreed that was rather something and a real shame that I’d missed out.

Normanskill, August 2011 Normanskill, August 2011

So when we left vacation behind and got back to reality we thought we’d been done with wild water for the summer, but then came the hurricanes. The morning after hurricane Irene left Albany and headed to Canada I defied the general order to stay home and checked out the flooding along the Albany waterfront. But first I went to the end of Delaware Avenue to see the Normanskill.

At the end of the Yellow Brick Road a number of other people had come to gawk at the raging river. I stood on the old concrete footbridge and took pictures and even a movie. But my little camera could not even begin to capture the sheer power of the Normanskill unleashed.

The Beaverkill Emerges Again At South Pearl And Arch Streets The Beaverkill Emerges Again At South Pearl And Arch Streets

Back in town, the manhole I call Old Faithful was spouting at the intersection of Arch Street and South Pearl. As usual. I believe this is part of the Beaverkill, the only above ground opening of the submerged river between the grate in Lincoln Park and the Hudson River. This underground river is supposed to function as an overflow storm drain, but actually is used to dump raw sewage into the Hudson. That day the spouting water looked and smelled clean.

Island Creek Park Monday Morning After Hurricane Irene Island Creek Park Monday Morning After Hurricane Irene

Island Creek Park, the only waterfront park in the South End, was drowned. I stood on on the edge of the parking lot and watched about 30 geese pick along the water’s edge.

The following Saturday The Wife and I checked out the park again. We could see that the City had plowed some six to eight inches of black mud off the walkways. You know that mud was loaded with General Electric PCBs that washed down from Stillwater. No one wants to talk about that. What a mess.

Mud In Island Creek Park Mud In Island Creek Park

Before Noon I checked out the underpass near the Dutch Apple cruise ship. The water was slowly advancing inland. I talked to some City DGS guys posted nearby, like what could they do? “The water came over the wall after eleven,” I was told. “High tide is at 6 PM tonight. It’s gonna keep rising.”

787 Underpass Near The Dutch Apple Boat 787 Underpass Near The Dutch Apple Boat

Fire Chief Robert Forezzi pulled up in his big white SUV to survey the situation. He told me he’d had about six hours of sleep over the last 48 hours, but he looked ready and alert. In fact, the City workers I’d talked to had knocked off at 1 AM the night before and had been back on the job at 5 AM.

All this mess, all this destruction. Sure, bad storms are more or less “an act of god” and inevitable. But a lot of the bad effects of hurricane Irene and the repeat flooding caused by hurricane Lee a week later should have been a lot less and more manageable. The Schoharie Valley drowned twice and the Mohawk river had record volume of water, but that shouldn’t have caused the wreckage of the Hudson Valley.

The top of the dam at Conklingville is 771 feet. This means that Great Lake Sacandaga can’t get any higher than that, although back in the summer of 2006 the lake held steady at three feet higher than the dam for three days. That caused the 2006 flood that drowned the Albany waterfront.

As Of September 14 Great Lake Sacandaga Is Still Filled To Capacity (USGS Data) As Of September 14 Great Lake Sacandaga
Is Still Filled To Capacity (USGS Data)

This summer the corrupt and incompetent managers of the lake hardly bothered to lower the water levels, in effect taking the flood control system off-line. On August 10 the lake was at 764 feet, leaving only seven feet of capacity to deal with flooding. Two days before Irene hit our region on august 28, the lake managers desperately tried to empty the lake but it was too late.

Great Sacandaga was too full to stop the flooding. After the lake level rose to 766 feet they simply opened the dam and let water pour unimpeded into the Hudson River. Well, at least the kids tried to do their homework at the last minute.

But when hurricane Lee hit on September 6, the lake managers didn’t even bother to try to increase Great Sacandaga’s holding capacity. They let the lake fill up nearly to the top of the dam, and as of September 12 there was only a foot and a half capacity left in the lake. Hope it doesn’t rain much soon.

On Great Lake Sacandaga At Dawn On Great Lake Sacandaga At Dawn

So expect more flooding of the Hudson Valley in the near future. Sporadic, out of control record floods will periodically drown the Albany waterfront until somebody files a lawsuit against the State of New York for neglecting and mismanaging our flood control system, that is, for refusing to empty out Great Lake Sacandaga.

So what is the solution? The State has to take back possession of the electric turbines on the Great Lake Sacandaga dams. Buy them, seize them, whatever. If the taxpayers own the turbines then the taxpayers won’t have to pay compensation money to privateers and the lake can be used for flood control once again. But until that happens, we are all at the mercy of the water gods.

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