By CRAIG FREILICH
The Raquette River is a lazy stream this spring compared to last year’s record-setting torrent, which rushed downriver at triple the flow that would normally be expected.
After a fairly dry winter and early runoff in a warm spell in March, water levels this spring at times have been less than half of what we might see.
“This spring has been dramatically different from 2011,” said Julie Smith-Galvin, director of communications at Brookfield Renewable Power, which operates dams and generating stations along the Raquette.
This year, “as most people know, the region experienced less than average snowfall,” she said in an e-mail. “Additionally, spring runoff occurred in mid-March (much earlier than the late-April time frame that it generally occurs) and was followed by a very dry April.
“Due to these unique conditions, flows into Carry Reservoir are only now approaching average levels, which will allow it to reach the level it needs to be for the summer months. Current conditions do not indicate a flooding problem this spring,” she said.
By contrast, last spring floodwaters inundated low-lying areas in South Colton, Potsdam, Norwood and Norfolk, and spots elsewhere, taking weeks to subside to manageable levels. Smith-Galvin said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has confirmed that 2011 was a highly unusual year.
Data from the United States Geological Survey show that the flow on the Raquette at the Piercefield dam, as measured in cubic feet per second discharge, exceeded the 103-year median on about April 11 last year, and stayed above it for nearly the whole summer.
This year, the flow dropped below the 103-year median just as the spring runoff would normally have begun, in early April, and is only now getting back up to the median.
A river flood cannot be predicted, but it can be anticipated, and Brookfield indicates it has made adjustments in its communications protocols.
“After last year’s flood, Brookfield took a close look at the 2011 conditions, operations and communication efforts in conjunction with the St. Lawrence County Office of Emergency Services,” said Smith-Galvin.
“We have plans in place to communicate unusual flow conditions, like those that occurred last year,” she continued. “We are committed to managing Carry Reservoir guided by current conditions and forecasts, our license, and long-term average data,” Smith-Galvin said.
Heavy rains in April of last year combined with mountain runoff from a fairly snowy winter to make for “more water than the river’s natural boundaries and dam system were able to contain,” Smith-Galvin said,
For nearly a week beforehand, the National Weather Service had been warning of the possibility of flooding along the river when Brookfield announced April 27 it was releasing extra water from the dam at Piercefield, just downriver from Tupper Lake and upriver from the reservoir at Carry Falls in Colton.
Even though they believed it was likely to create flooding downstream through Colton, Hannawa Falls, Potsdam, Norwood, Norfolk, Raymondville, all the way to Massena, “we feel it’s the responsible thing to do,” said Brookfield’s former supervisor for the Raquette River region, Dan Parker, at the time.
The fear was that they could lose control of the whole system if they didn’t begin releasing water through upstream dams as heavy rains fell and runoff continued to back up behind the Piercefield dam. “We don’t want to overtop them and lose control all the way down the river,” said Parker.
The rains continued into early May, and the huge flows continued. Some homes and businesses along the river, most notably in South Colton, had several feet of water in them. The Village of Potsdam declared a state of emergency as businesses and homes near the river downtown had to be pumped out by the fire department and other volunteers. A similar situation prevailed in Norwood, where the fire department was pumping as fast as they could, and students from BOCES Seaway Tech Center filled sandbags to try to hold off the waters.
As the rains abated in mid-May, the river slowly returned to manageable levels.