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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 1, 2011

Irene’s terror tamed with riffles and pools
County proposes cutting all funding for Soil and Water Conservation

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALBANY COUNTY — After Shirley Morey’s Berne home flooded from Tropical Storm Irene, she called several government agencies for help and was frustrated by the lack of response.

When she called the county’s soil and water conservation district office, representatives came out the following day, she said.

The small creek behind her low-lying 1800s home swelled with floodwater during the storm, overflowing its banks and tearing apart her yard and house.  The siding has now been replaced, as has her living room carpet and furniture, with money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The flooding left Morey’s yard a rough landscape and the stream bank less stable since many of the trees had come down in the storm.

The soil and water department got about 30 calls after the storm, field manager Joseph Slezak estimated, and Morey’s situation fit well with what the department usually does.

When working on a streambed, he said, the department tries to mimic the natural pool and riffle effect.  Streams generally form a series of steps, he explained, some shallow, that the water flows over, and some deep, where the water settles out.  The department used some of the old root balls that were left after the storm to create the riffles and pools, which also makes fish habitat.

That method channels the water’s energy toward the center of the streambed, taking pressure off of the bank, Slezak said, which was part of the problem that resulted in the flooding of Morey’s yard.  Using that technique saved a significant amount of money over the frequently used method of inserting rip-rap, the large stones often seen on shorelines.

The project took about three to four days to finish and cost about $3,800, Slezak said.  The only cost was for the equipment and contractor, he said.  Jim Welch, of Fax Valley Excavation, did the work.

Slezak’s department probably does one project like Morey’s each year, he guessed, but it would do more if it had more money.

Funding for the department has been cut from the county executive’s proposed budget for the coming year.  Appropriations for the department have been falling since a high of $103,000 in 2003 and 2004.  For the last two years, it has gotten $81,000 from Albany County.  With the grants it gets for specific projects, Slezak said, his department multiplies that budget by seven — it brought in about $550,000 in 2011.

“We’re kind of in emergency mode,” Slezak said, explaining that the department will have to start charging residents for services if the county legislature adopts the budget without adding any funding for the soil and water conservation office; he encouraged people to contact their legislators to ask that funding be restored.

The county is facing a $17 million budget deficit, said Mary Duryea, spokesperson for County Executive Michael Breslin, so everything in the budget had to be looked at (See related story).  The programs that were not mandated by the state or federal governments were cut first, she said, explaining, “Soil and water is a non-mandated program.”

The budget also eliminated funding for: the Capital District Regional Planning Commission; a cure coordination program, for the elderly and ill; funding that is over what is mandated for in-home services for the elderly; and cut funds for the Cornell Cooperative Extension, Duryea said.  Breslin made the cuts based on what the county was obligated to fund, she said, adding, “We’re not saying that the services they provide aren’t valuable.”

Since 1945, the soil and water district has offered programs to help people preserve soil, water, and other natural resources.  It has programs on storm-water management, agricultural environmental management, and fish stocking, among others.

Daniel McCoy, the chairman of the county legislature who will take his seat as county executive in January after winning an uncontested election, said that the legislature would try to pass a budget with a minimum impact on people.  “This is what people don’t realize,” he said, explaining that lowering the tax levy affects the services that the government provides.

Breslin’s proposed budget carries a 19-percent increase and McCoy said that the legislature is “trying to get that 19 percent down to a single digit.”  In order to do that, he said, “Something has to give.”  The budget will likely not come in under the newly instated tax-levy cap of 2 percent, a limit that can be overridden with a 60-percent majority vote in the legislature.

Shirley Morey, who lost her wedding pictures in the flood and spent three-and-a-half weeks living with her sister in law, is grateful for the assistance that she’s gotten from the government.  “I never would have been back in my house if it was not for FEMA,” she said.

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