Volunteers and municipal workers lay sandbags in Potsdam, Colton as Raquette River runs high
Friday, April 26, 2019 - 5:23 pm

Leonard Bonno, left, and Colton-Pierrepont School's class of 2019 assisted volunteers in laying sandbags in Colton Friday. North Country This Week photo by Debbie Morgan.

By CRAIG FREILICH
North Country This Week

COLTON – Volunteers and town employees were busy filling and laying sandbags Friday along the Raquette River as a precaution against potential of flooding from a strong spring runoff that could lead to flooding.

The St. Lawrence County Office of Emergency Services issued the alert late last week, warning that “flooding in lower elevation shoreline areas is expected to occur.”

Those living in the Raquette River corridor who are concerned that the rising river might threaten dwellings and other structures should contact emergency services by dialing 911.

“The Office of Emergency Services reminds residents and motorists that it is inadvisable, and potentially dangerous, to drive vehicles into standing water on roadways,” a the warning said.

The director of emergency services for St. Lawrence County is cautiously optimistic that despite predictions last week that the Raquette River would continue rising into this week, the flow has subsided a bit and “levels are holding steady.”

Interim Emergency Services Director Keith Zimmerman said Friday that “the flow rates have been reduced” and that the flow was “below the critical discharge rate – at the moment,” he said.

But that hasn’t slowed preparations or diminished the cause for concern.

“It should be noted that, in our earlier press release, we encouraged all residents along the Raquette River corridor to maintain awareness of water levels and to be cautious if they encounter water across any low-lying roadways. The narrower river and lake segments in the southern portion of the corridor, generally south of Hannawa Falls, may experience rises in water levels sooner than some of the other, wider portions of corridor,” he said.

Zimmerman said the county reached out to New York State Emergency Management Office for 10,000 sandbags and a mechanized bagger, which were delivered by New York State Department of Transportation Thursday.

On Friday morning volunteers assisted town employees in filling more than 3,000 bags, among the volunteers were Colton’s class of 2019.

Zimmerman said he does not expect to use sandbags from the state at this time, but requested them because the county's own reserve of sandbags was running low after deploying about 3,000 bags initially to Colton and Potsdam, Zimmerman said.

“A cool rig has been brought in from state Emergency Services in Oriskany” that has automated the filling of sandbags at a decent clip in the Colton Town Barn, Zimmerman said.

Town workers and others had begun placing sandbags around several structures there. Zimmerman said one house in Potsdam low on the riverbank at the end of Elderkin Street has been surrounded by sandbags as well. In addition, then village has taken the precaution of putting up some barricades on Fall Island behind Trinity Church and behind Evans & White Hardware on Maple Street to discourage onlookers from getting too close to the bank, according to Village Administrator Greg Thompson.

“The challenge is when the ground is steeper and (the riverbed is) narrower,” making the flow more intense. “Below Potsdam the surface area is wider so it is more mitigable.”

He said that he and his staff were exercising “a high level of attention” along with local highway and public works departments, and warned that his optimism could be washed away quickly if conditions change, “but we’ve managed as best as we can.”

The variables are temperatures and their effect on remaining snowpack in the mountains to the south, overland flow, and rainfall, Zimmerman said. “They’re still factors.”

“The width and breadth of the overall Raquette watershed is huge,” Zimmerman said, starting more than 100 miles to the south at Raquette Lake and Blue Mountain Lake in Hamilton County and flowing through the communities of Tupper Lake, Colton, Hannawa Falls, Potsdam, Norwood, Norfolk, Raymondville and Massena before emptying into the St. Lawrence at Akwesasne. About two dozen hydroelectric dams operate along the river, but have little capacity to slow any excessive flow.

The Carry Falls Reservoir in Colton is the largest and is being used to regulate flow to a degree, Zimmerman said. “They’re releasing an amount of water to maintain some discharge” so there is no huge backup, and that the water “is hovering just below flood levels. No roads have been inundated yet.”

“We’re remaining vigilant, but right now we don’t anticipate a rapid rise.

“We’re getting great cooperation from Brookfield and the towns, and we’re prepared to respond if needed.”

Flooding along the Raquette River in April and May 2011 caused high-water damage in Colton, Potsdam, Norwood and Norfolk, and kept fire volunteers busy pumping out basements at businesses and homes.