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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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September 20, 2013

Sewage And Flooding On The Waterfront

Public attention spurs a planning initiative for Albany’s coast, but first take care of the long-neglected problems

The government of the City of Albany wants to “transform the waterfront,” make it “more user friendly” and “connect the waterfront to the surrounding neighborhoods.” All well and good, I’m all for it, it’s about time they got serious about the reason Albany exists. The 20th Century policy of ignoring the river is one of the root causes of the economic decline of our community.

But what good is prettying up the waterfront if the elaborate and expensive flood control system for the Hudson River no longer functions as originally intended? If every few years the proposed marina is wrecked by flooding and the new parking lots disappear under a foot of PCB-riddled mud, then why bother? And why did Albany County just pay $1.2 million taxpayer dollars and agree to pay a million dollars a year from now on to the managers of the flood control system if that system no longer functions and is effectively worthless to us?

And why are the City planners talking about locating restaurants almost on top of the spot where raw untreated sewage pours into the river? Isn’t that rather unhealthy, like what you would expect in the Third World, and wouldn’t tourists find the odor and floating mats of poop uninviting? I get the distinct impression that I’m annoying a lot of people by asking these questions.

Firedancer At The Weekly Tuesday Night Spinjam At The Albany Waterfront Amphitheater
Firedancer At The Weekly Tuesday Night Spinjam At The Albany Waterfront Amphitheater

Back in February I wandered into the main library on Washington Avenue to join about a hundred people who had shown up for a public meeting sponsored by the City of Albany Planning Department. The planners, you see, had managed to procure some grants so they could hold these sessions and inform us taxpayers about their Local Waterfront Revitalization Program (immediately christened the LWRP) which will, we were told, transform the Hudson River shoreline into a user-friendly and accessible asset to the City of Albany. And of course the planners were asking for some constructive input from us folks, that’s pretty much a condition of the grants.

Given my longtime interest in the subject several people urged me to attend. This was actually the second meeting, I’d blown off the first because, well, for years the City has held all kinds of public planning meetings that are very nice and optimistic about the future and make everybody feel like part of the process but never result in any noticeable improvements. But I was told that things had changed, the Planning Department was serious and interest in the waterfront was at an all time high.

Getting public input is always dicey. For instance, when an attendee at this meeting suggested that access to the waterfront could be vastly improved by tearing down Interstate 787 and replacing it with a boulevard, the whole place erupted into applause. That’s not what the City officials wanted to hear. And of course Old Loudmouth here had a few annoying things to say during both parts of the meeting, about the waterfront plan and about the old problem of flooding.

The Old Problem Of Flooding: South Pearl Street, 1913
The Old Problem Of Flooding: South Pearl Street, 1913

The plan, which at the time was in its infancy, called for what looked to me like a grab bag of minor improvements, heavy on tourism and recreation with just a few nods toward sustainable economic development. Notably, there wasn’t much real talk about infrastructure. So I raised my hand and Planning Department director Doug Melnick clenched his teeth and called on me.

I told the group that it was all very nice to talk about marinas and parking lots (always with the parking) and the establishment of a “waterfront restaurant row” along the South End part of the waterfront. But before we even begin to talk about these things, I asked, shouldn’t we first take care of the raw sewage that pours out of the “Big C” pipe into the river? Wouldn’t the existence of that raw sewage, the odor and floating mats of human poop defeat any and all plans to make the waterfront user friendly?

Everyone looked at me stunned, like I had just announced that the mayor had rabies and was on his way to the library to bite us all. The Big C is the Combined Overflow, a big concrete pipe which is located under the U-Haul building parking lot and serves as the mouth of the buried Beaverkill River. As I’ve discovered and have mentioned often on this blog, the buried Beaverkill is the drain for Washington Park Lake and the raw sewage that pours out of it originates in the Park South neighborhood, quite possibly from Albany Medical Center.

The Big C Earlier This Summer
The Big C Earlier This Summer

According to tests conducted by various governments and by environmental groups, the water just past the Big C shows an enormous and regionally unique spike in dissolved poop (fecal coliform) and is a tremendous breeding area for the bacteria that lives inside your large intestine (enterococcus.) It seems to me that if you encourage more human contact with this highly contaminated water then you are increasing the risk of some unthinkable Third World sewage disease like cholera or typhus infecting the unwary.

To the credit of the City planners, even though they were all cringing as I spoke, they openly acknowledged the existence of the problem. This meeting last February marked the first time that any government official has admitted anything to me about the Big C. For example, when I started railing about this problem some four years ago, the Capital District Regional Planning Commission (CDRPC,) the group that coordinates planning initiatives for our region, refused to admit that the buried pipe that carries the Beaverkill existed. It wasn’t even on their maps.

Washington Park Lake: The Beaverkill Before It Collects Sewage
Washington Park Lake: The Beaverkill Before It Collects Sewage

I’m here to tell you that if a taxpayer like me or like you complains long enough about a serious public problem and the authorities are in no position to kill you, then sooner or later the authorities will take steps to deal with the problem just to shut you up. Sure enough, last month I learned by email from my outgoing Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro that:

It is my understanding that the EPA [Feds] and DEC [State] are requiring us [Albany] to put into the Combined Sewer Overflow Intermunicipal Proposal, that is already slated to cost $110 million, an additional $15 million specifically for the Big C. I also heard some of the other member municipal governments are balking at sharing this additional $15 million and that the City/County may have to eat the whole cost.

I’m gonna miss that guy. Okay good, I was delighted to hear about earnest negotiations to find money to deal with the sewage coming down the Beaverkill, which is supposed to be strictly a storm drain. This was part of an email back-and-forth that I had started while I was on vacation, sitting at a picnic table on a screen enclosed porch staring out at Great Sacandaga Lake. My State Assembly representative John McDonald, who was formerly mayor of the small City of Cohoes (located about 10 miles upstream from Albany) had this to say by email:

You are correct - Big C is the key to the future for the City [of Albany] and it is also a critical component of the soon to be approved Long Term Control Plan for Combined Sewer Overflows for the Albany Pool Communities (Albany, Cohoes, Green Island, Rensselaer, Troy and Watervliet). This was something I worked on personally as Mayor of Cohoes since 2006 and continue to do so today...

...I suspect you did not hear much about it as for the last three to four years we have been negotiating with DEC on the final work plan, based on the data provided by the study we collectively did to optimize our spending plan and to meet the common goals of a cleaner and safer Hudson River. As you might suspect, we do not negotiate in public as it takes away bargaining power...

The fact that dealing with the sewage coming down the Beaverkill was not originally part of the Long Term Control Plan shows that it only became noticed by officialdom as an afterthought. I suspect that negotiations to fix the Beaverkill sewage coming out of the Big C would have moved along quite a bit faster if the public had been informed and had been offering input, but no matter. The public is all over it now so therefore things are happening.

The Stinking Grate That Vents The Beaverkill Sewage In Lincoln Park
The Stinking Grate That Vents The Beaverkill Sewage
In Lincoln Park

This is not a new problem. I first became aware of the sewage in the Beaverkill like a quarter century ago because of the aeration grate in Lincoln Park. Located in the ravine behind a community garden and across the street from a public elementary school, the grate exists so that gas generated by fermenting poop doesn’t build up, explode and damage and nauseate someplace regarded as more important than my neighborhood.

The grate, which probably dates back to the 1950s, was placed there for a reason. Somebody in the City of Albany government realized that raw sewage was flowing down the Beaverkill and generating stinking gas, and rather than spend time and money to deal with the problem decided instead to put in a gas vent someplace where people were unlikely to dare to complain. And to think that once upon a time this ravine was considered a tourist attraction.

That’s not the only problem. Not too far from the grate, visible from Delaware Avenue, the pipe that carries the Beaverkill apparently has collapsed and is leaking sewage into the ground. And no, this is not a new problem. It’s been like that for some twenty years.

Where The Beaverkill Leaks: The Fenced Off Sinkhole In Lincoln Park
Where The Beaverkill Leaks:
The Fenced Off Sinkhole In Lincoln Park

There’s a fellow in my neighborhood who repeatedly tells this story, of how one day in the mid-1990s he was cutting across the grass in Lincoln Park on his way home. Suddenly his leg sunk into the grass up to his knee. As the hole widened he scrambled to get out, and he stood there panting and staring at the new sinkhole that he had unwittingly created.

So this fellow reported the sinkhole to the authorities, who swung into action. I remember back in the 1990s curiously watching the City guys as they widened the hole, peered into it, and filled it up again. I asked them what was up, and some supervisor barked at me that nothing was the problem and don’t worry about it. So I swallowed my annoyance and figured I’d eventually find out.

But then nothing. A crummy red wooden snow fence decorated with a Keep Out sign went up around the hole, and about five years later after that snow fence started to collapse it was replaced by a more permanent chain link fence. And so it has remained for 20 years. A few years ago I figured out that the fenced-in sinkhole was part of the Beaverkill, but to this day no one official or otherwise has offered the neighborhood so much as one word about this potentially serious hazard in the middle of a public park.

Well, today we all know why nothing has been done about this sinkhole. For the last 20 years this has been Jerry Jennings’ Albany, His personal fiefdom that allowed no interference from other politicians and certainly not from the despised taxpayers. If Jerry wanted to saddle Lincoln Park with a permanent fenced-off sinkhole, an increasingly stinking grate, and raw sewage pouring into the waterfront, then no one dared to defy His will. It is no coincidence that this problem is finally being addressed as He is going out the door.

Broadway Underpass, Albany NY August 2011
Broadway Underpass, Albany NY August 2011

So back to that waterfront meeting last February. After hearing about the Planning Department’s ideas for the waterfront, we got to hear about the threat of flooding. A very nice well-dressed lady very brightly told us that much of downtown Albany is on a flood plain and that we can expect more flooding in coming decades, mostly because of global warming. She basically told us that every once in a while we can expect to go boating down the middle of South Pearl Street, and sometimes paddle down Broadway.

I sat there shaking my head. How much did they pay this woman to write and deliver such a worthless load of BS? Downtown Albany has been under a threat of flooding since 1609, is this news? I guess I should be glad they got a grant for this instead of spending my City tax dollars.

After she finished I asked her, in front of all those people, “In preparing your report, did you take into account the existence of Great Sacandaga Lake, which was built specifically to deal with the threat of flooding in downtown Albany, particularly the South End?” The poor woman looked stunned, her mouth opened and her hands full of papers fell to her sides. No, no she hadn’t.

I really hate doing that to people. Then again, perhaps she should have done her homework. Or maybe the City officials who briefed her when they hired her to prepare a report on flooding in downtown Albany should have alerted her to the existence of the elaborate flood control system that has been in place since 1930.

Island Creek Park In Albany's South End, August 2011
Island Creek Park In Albany's South End, August 2011

There might be a reason why this woman wasn’t told about Great Sacandaga Lake. You see, the managers of the lake, the Hudson River Black River Regulating District (HRBRRD) are supposed to empty out the lake during the summer, that is, let the water levels go down by letting water out of the dam at Batchellerville. That way if late summer storms or hurricanes hit the region, the rush of water coming down from the Adirondack Mountains fills the lake instead of filling basements in downtown Albany.

But at the end of summer 2011 when the two hurricanes Irene and Andrew hit this region we had major flooding in Albany and all along the Hudson River. Sure, when two hurricanes arrive a week apart no flood control system can prevent at least some damage. But if the system had been working as originally intended then the damage would have been much less along the upper Hudson and the flooding would have stayed confined to the edge of the Albany waterfront.

Unfortunately, as I chronicled, the HRBRRD managers had not emptied out Sacandaga like they were supposed to do. When the first storm Irene hit on August 29 the lake only had seven feet of holding capacity, and when hurricane Andrew hit there was only four feet of space in the lake. When the first hurricane hit water cascaded over the dam as if it weren’t there. All the waterfront communities in Albany County sustained major damage and it has taken literally years to put things right again.

Flooding At Great Sacandaga Lake, July 4 2006
Flooding At Great Sacandaga Lake, July 4 2006

And again back in July 2006, after several days of heavy rain over the region I watched the Hudson River water lap up onto Broadway in downtown Albany. Sure enough, at the time I looked up the water levels and saw that Sacandaga had not been emptied out. The lake was so full of water in July 2006 that for two days the water level of the lake was three feet HIGHER than the dam. This flood could easily have been prevented.

So why don’t the managers of the lake do their job? Well, I’ve always blamed their corruption on privatization. It seems that in 1999 (and again in 2002) the HRBRRD sold the turbines on the downstream dams, which included a provision that guaranteed that a certain amount of water would fall over the dam for about three quarters of the year. If the guaranteed water does not fall as expected, then the taxpayers of the State of New York have to compensate the privateers who own the turbines.

So I’ve been in the habit of saying that the HRBRRD managers are terrified of making payments to the privateers, so they keep the lake overfilled. But you know what? Even with all this dumbass Ayn Randian worshipping of privatization going around, that is such stupid behavior that sooner or later some public personage or official would surely object. But no one has. Could there be a deeper, more underlying reason for no longer using Sacandaga for flood control?

Looking Out At Sacandaga, August 2013
Looking Out At Sacandaga, August 2013

Sitting at that picnic table in the screen enclosed porch staring out at Sacandaga this past August, I decided to apply logic to this question. Officially there are three reasons for building the lake and making all those people living in the Sacandaga Valley evacuate their homes back in the 1920s. The reasons are, in descending order of importance:

Prevent flooding of upper Hudson River communities

Prevent ocean salt from moving up the lower Hudson during dry years

Provide water recreation (boating, vacationers)

Up until about 1995 the first item was the only one that mattered, the other two were an afterthought. Great Sacandaga Lake was built because of the great flood of 1913, when the South End of Albany was nearly drowned and generated a typhus epidemic which crawled up the hill and struck the families of State legislators. The ruinous flood of 1925 hardened the resolve of the State legislators, and thus the dam at Batchellerville was closed in 1930 and the Sacandaga Valley flooded.

Water Pouring Uncontrolled Over The Batchellerville Dam At Sacandaga, August 2011
Water Pouring Uncontrolled Over The Batchellerville Dam At Sacandaga, August 2011

To pay for and maintain that flood control system is why Albany County from now on has to pay $1.02 million every year to the HRBRRD, and four other upper Hudson River counties have to pay somewhat lesser amounts. Recent court decisions have made it clear that we all have to pay. The official thinking is that if the five upper Hudson counties are the main beneficiaries of this flood control system, then surely it is only fair that we help pay for the enormous cost of maintaining this system.

But what the courts do not seem to understand is that the five counties are receiving no effective flood control benefit whatsoever. That’s really not a surprise, courts and judges are like computers, they can only process the information that’s fed to them. Like they say, garbage in, garbage out. If the Albany County lawyers had brought up this argument then perhaps they would have won the case for the taxpayers.

And as I’ve found out, the elected officials of Albany County act like they don’t understand either. I’ve talked to more than a few of them about this, they listen, they shrug, and they have nothing to say. I’ve been assuming that they figure it’s easier to pay what I consider extortion money than to object. But why do they ignore the problem?

Conductivity Of Hudson River Water At Poughkeepsie For Mid-September, Indicates The Amount Of Ocean Salt Present
Conductivity Of Hudson River Water At Poughkeepsie For Mid-September, Indicates The Amount Of Ocean Salt Present

Well, thanks to my use of simple logic The Truth finally dawned on me. I asked myself, what is Sacandaga mostly being used for today? So I rewrote the list of what the lake is used for, and that’s when the lightbulb lit up over my head. In descending order of importance, the purpose of Great Sacandaga Lake is to:

1) Prevent ocean salt from moving up the lower Hudson during dry years

Provide water recreation (boating, vacationers)

Prevent flooding of upper Hudson River communities

Of course! The Word has come from powerful downstate politicians and wealthy influential characters that they are very concerned about their end of the Hudson getting salty. They decided that is was time to prioritize in their favor, which means that from now on Great Lake Sacandaga has to remain close to full capacity all through summer. That way if the region has a drought, there will be plenty of water to flush out the salt downstate.

Sacandaga Depleted After Flushing Out Downstate Salt During A Dry Spring, April 2012
Sacandaga Depleted After Flushing Out Downstate Salt During A Dry Spring, April 2012

Here’s how I figured it out. Back in the late 1990s the local corporate media was full of stories about how ocean salt was creeping up the Hudson, this because we had several dry years in a row, a time of drought. Not enough fresh water was coming down out of the mountains which allowed more of the ocean to creep north. The problem, we were told, was that the “Salt Front” was endangering the drinking water of downstate communities that draw their tap water out of the Hudson.

(As an aside, funny how no community that gets their drinking water from the Hudson, such as Poughkeepsie or Bethlehem, ever worries about drinking GE PCBs flushed down from Stillwater, the sewage from Albany or any of the other toxins routinely dumped into the river. But salt, you see, you can taste.)

But at the same time the corporate media was full of stories of how the tourist concerns around Great Sacandaga Lake were hurting because of low water levels. No one at the time wondered why the local corporate media would suddenly be concerned about an economically depressed backwater up in Adirondack Park more than an hour’s drive from Albany. This was long before the internet, you see, when we took whatever information we received and asked no questions.

By August Sacandaga Was Filled To Near Capacity, 2012
By August Sacandaga Was Filled To Near Capacity, 2012

So by the year 2000 the HRBRRD lake managers had formulated a mission statement that governed lake management policy. This policy is still very much in effect 13 years later:

Maintain the Great Sacandaga Lake at certain targeted elevations during the late winter consistent with the use of storage for flow augmentation

Maintain Hudson River and Sacandaga River flows for water quality and fish habitat purposes

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, Sacandaga River whitewater recreation and other objectives

Such concern about recreation and hydroelectric generation, but nothing about flood control. And that term “flow augmentation” in the first item, what does it mean? That is a euphemism for “keeping salt out of the lower Hudson.” That first item in the list above is all about keeping the lake overfilled so the water can be dumped into the Hudson to keep back the Salt Front at a moment’s notice.

Note how there’s no direct reference to using Sacandaga primarily to push back the Salt Front in either the HRBRRD public policy statements nor in the corporate media articles from the 1990s that I linked to above. At a glance it appears that the most important thing that the authorities are worried about is recreational opportunities at the lake itself. Apparently they are saying that they must keep the water levels high so that motorized boats can zip back and forth across the lake without scraping bottom.

Deer Island, Sacandaga, In The 1990s Was Covered With Trees
Deer Island, Sacandaga, In The 1990s Was Covered With Trees

But these “higher than historic levels” water comes at a cost to the recreation businesses. The constant high water, especially in summer, drowns campsites and damages docks. Beaches remain underwater during peak tourist season. Shorelines are eroding alarmingly fast, and islands have been stripped of vegetation and are disappearing under the water.

So really, the excessively high water is not all that good for recreation, but that’s the official justification for not emptying out the lake. But if the lake is overfilled at all times then there will always be plenty of water available to flush out that downstate salt at a moment’s notice. Flood control is an item that is simply no longer on the table.

So why is Albany County paying these HRBRRD people all that money? I think it very likely that when it came time for the Albany County legislators to consider the question of payment to the HRBRRD for services that are no longer rendered, the downstate politicians gave the County The Word. Downstate wants to hold back the salt, so we want you backwoods hicks in Albany to pipe down and pay and don’t rock the boat, so to speak. And apparently our County legislators obeyed their superiors.

Look, I don’t mind paying taxes if I get something in return for those taxes. But once again us upstate taxpayers are subsidizing downstate, and we’re getting nothing for it but high water. I don’t like being ripped off like that. This has got to stop.

Current Albany Waterfront Seen From The River: Not User Friendly

Current Albany Waterfront Seen From The River:
Not User Friendly

If the City of Albany is serious about rebuilding its waterfront, then it has to openly confront the elimination of our flood control system. That means confronting the managers of the HRBRRD and through them confronting the downstate politicians who have shut down our flood control system. And if we can’t get our flood control system back on line, then Albany County needs to stop payments to the HRBRRD until we begin again to receive expected services in return for our cash.



A group of citizens have organized Reclaim Our Waterfront (ROW) which is working to move the City of Albany toward paying attention to and revitalizing our precious Hudson River access. They meet usually every two weeks at The Pump House, for more information contact Bill Newman at

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Posted by:CK Philippo
Posted on:11/17/2013
"The City's Ancient Ravines adapted from The Annals of Albany (volume 8, pp. 174-76)"

Possibly the above material is already on your site somewhere. One wishes Albany could have its kills back somehow.

I wonder if the deterioration of the recently-closed Spring Avenue bridge in Troy over the Poestenkill had something to do with mismanagement of high floodwaters. Mount Ida Lake used to be deeper and wider, but it fills with silt and needs to be dredged from time to time. It used to be large enough to accommodate four skating rinks; speed skating championships and hockey games were even held there at one time; canoes and small sailboats could travel on it; there was a toboggan slide. No more. It hasn't been dredged in decades.

Posted by:Dan Van Riper
Posted on:11/18/2013
No, I hadn't seen that. Thanks for passing that along.

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