Back on August 5, 2014, the skies dumped almost three inches of rain on the city of Albany in the span of about an hour.
Parts of the city's storm sewer system just couldn't keep up with the deluge -- and there was flash flooding in many spots. People floating in inner tubes downtown. Spouting manhole covers and more than two feet of water on Elberon Place. And a little farther uptown in a section just off South Main Ave, the backyards and basements of houses were swamped with four feet of water.
Prompted in part by that day, Albany's water department is now building a $1.9 million project aimed at adding some modern flexibility to the very old infrastructure that runs up the city's spine.
What's the problem?
In short: When the city of Albany gets a lot of rain in a short amount of time, its storm sewers can't handle the rush of water. That results in two big problems:
+ There's flooding because the system can't drain the water fast enough. You've probably seen it -- every few years a big rainfall event causes flooding at spots around the city. A few prominent examples: That storm in 2014 mentioned above, and another one in 2008.
+ Sewage ends up in the Hudson River. Albany -- like many other old cities -- has what's called a combined sewer system. The sanitary sewers and storm water sewers are connected. And when the system is overwhelmed by a deluge of rain, it overflows into the Hudson, dumping raw sewage into the river. Yep, it's gross. And it's a health and environmental problem. (These events are called "combined sewer overflows" and there's currently a big effort among the "Albany pool" communities along the Hudson River to address the issue.)
Any one of these flooding events would be a problem. But for whatever reason -- whether it's climate change or some sort of other weather cycle -- they seem to be happening more often.
As Joe Coffey, Albany's water commissioner said to us Wednesday of these large bursts of rainfall, "We've probably seen more of those in the last 10-15 years than we saw in the 50 years before that."
The long history
Albany is, of course, a very old place, with history layered atop of history, layered atop of history. In this situation, it's in some ways a case of that history resurfacing.
There were once three major streams that ran across what's now the city of Albany. But as the city developed and spread to the west, these streams were piped and sent underground. Along the way development consumed wetland and other space that once soaked up rainfall.
As it happens, the sites of this flooding in recent years are along branches of the underground storm sewer that's essentially taken the place of the old Beaver Kill/Beaver Creek. (This presentation from a community meeting a few years back is a quick overview of some of this history.)
Today the Beaver Creek sewer drains a large area at the heart of Albany, about 25 percent of all the storm water in the city.
So, what's the project?
The Albany water department has a few things in the works:
A large construction project in Woodlawn Park -- the area that got flooded with four feet of water in 2014 -- is building two structures designed to ease the strain on the sewer system during large rainfall events:
+ An infiltration gallery: That's the technical term for a series of large pipes that will be placed under the outfield of the baseball diamond there. They'll be able to hold about 750,000 gallons of water that will either slowly seep into the ground water or be allowed to empty into the sewer at a later time when there's capacity available. The water department will use underground sensors to monitor the capacity of the storm sewer and it'll be able to discharge the water based on the situation.
+ A new wetland: A pond/wetland area is being built just to the north of the baseball field that will be able to hold 500,000 gallons of water. Again, the idea is the same -- to hold onto the water until the sewer once again has the capacity to handle it.
As Coffey said Wednesday, "This is a big scale project." And it's the the first such system in the city. Planning for it grew out of a series of community meetings that followed the 2014 flooding in the neighborhood.
The goal is to have the project finished in November.
Elberon Place/Washington Park Lake
You know that giant sinkhole that opened on South Lake? Well, the fix for that is still ongoing in part because the water department took the opportunity when everything was torn up to start upgrading 80 feet of large storm sewer there, a project that was already planned. Coffey said they hoped to have the new section installed this week.
The new sewer is part of a plan to direct separated storm water (that is, it doesn't have sewage in it) both from Elberon and Quail Street (where the city recently installed permeable pavement that allows storm water to sink through it) and direct it into Washington Park Lake. The water department will be able to manage the level of the lake so that it can use the body of water as another buffer for the sewer system, reducing the strain on the system during large rainfall events.
If these projects work out as planned, they should help reduce flooding and cut down on the amount of sewage that ends up in the Hudson by blunting the surges of the water through the sewer system.
Much of the money for the project is coming from the state, primarily the Department of Environmental Conservation. The city got $1.8 million as part of a competitive grant program.
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