Issues Surrounding Westchester's Flood-Prone Roads Highways
We Westchester drivers should switch to canoes to navigate our flood-prone roads. We know: it’s not funny. Nor are our flooded highways. What can we do? The answer is really not funny.
Flooding on the Bronx River Parkway in Scarsdale.
You don’t have to be a hydrological engineer to know why Westchester’s parkways flood with regularity. After all, our major arterials include the Saw Mill River Parkway, the Hutchinson River Parkway, the Bronx River Parkway—see the pattern? In fact, if you need to locate the parkways, just look at a map of the county’s floodplains. You’ll find the roads running right down the middle.
This past year gave us record-breaking rain—about 20 inches above normal by the end of September—and, with it, memorable road closures. Hurricane Irene brought the parkways to a standstill, of course, and multiple parkways were closed by storm water for a day or more five other times. County Legislator MaryJane Shimsky says the 30-mile-long Saw Mill River Parkway was closed at least 11 times.
Parkway closures are more than just inconvenient. Phelps Memorial Hospital CEO Keith Safian says floods that shut down the Saw Mill keep his staff members from getting to work on time—not good for the health of the county. Customers who can’t get to businesses hurt the economy, too, as attested by Oasis Day Spa co-owner Bruce Schoenberg. “Every time the Parkway floods in Dobbs Ferry, we lose money,” he says. “In a service business, an appointment that gets canceled is revenue lost forever.”
On an average day in Westchester, more than 300,000 drivers use the parkways. That’s a lot of traffic to divert through side streets in Pleasantville, Elmsford, Mount Vernon, Scarsdale, Yonkers, and other places that bear the brunt of parkway closures. Add the cost of police to direct traffic flow, public works crews to put up barricades, residents whose ability to get around is hampered by clogged side streets, and workers who can’t get to the job, and you’ve got a major—and expensive—problem.
So why doesn’t somebody do something about it? Our engineers can put a man on the moon, a video camera in your cellphone, and even a curl in Donald Trump’s comb-over. So why can’t we keep the parkways open when it rains?
“A variety of issues contribute to the flooding,” says Pat Ferracane, environmental program specialist at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. “And because there are a multitude of causes, there is going to be a multitude of solutions.” Or none at all.
In addition to weather—maybe even global warming—jurisdictional politics are involved, not to mention money, environmental concerns, and the immutable laws of physics. Water runs downhill and there’s not a darn thing we can do about that. But setting aside Mother Nature for a minute, the most intractable of these factors may be jurisdictional. The NYS Department of Transportation, the folks who brought you more than a decade of I-287 reconstruction, are responsible for all Westchester parkways except the Bronx River, which belongs to the county. When asked what’s being done about parkway flooding, NYSDOT Region 8 Spokesperson Sue Stepp answered, “There are no simple fixes.”
Major flood control projects on the rivers fall under the purview of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which completed several of them in the 1980s with varying degrees of success. Don’t look there for action. According to USACE Section Chief Jodi McDonald, “We don’t have a cost-sharing partner right now for anything in Westchester County except the Mamaroneck and Sheldrake River projects.”
Actually, the Corps did create a plan to alleviate flooding on the Saw Mill in Elmsford. Authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1965 and backed by 24 years’ worth of studies, the 1989 plan called for 2.7 miles of channel modification on the Saw Mill River, 713 feet on Mine Brook, and a 1,414-foot diversion channel with a low-flow weir. It was a big, big project. And it went nowhere due to “marginal economic justification and budgetary constraints,” according to a Corps report obtained in May, 2011—46 years after the initial authorization.
So, why not pass the buck to Westchester County? “We can certainly play a role—and must play a role—in some of the regional planning for mitigating the flooding issues,” County Executive Rob Astorino says. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the money or the power to fix all the problems. But we must work together on regional approaches.”
Ah, yes, “planning” and “regional approaches.” We do a lot of planning. Things get really complicated, though, when it comes to cobbling together “regional approaches” in Westchester. Our plethora of local governments makes tackling region-wide problems like storm-water control almost laughably complex.
Take the flooding problem along the Saw Mill River, the poster child for frequently flooding roadway rivers. The river begins as a pond in Chappaqua, flows through Pleasantville, Sleepy Hollow, and the unincorporated section of Greenburgh, meanders through Tarrytown, Elmsford, Irvington, Ardsley, Dobbs Ferry, and Hastings-on-Hudson, bubbles through Larkin Park in Yonkers, and ends up in the Hudson River near the train station. Every one of those municipalities has a stake—and a say—in what happens to the river and the parkway it closes about once a month.
Several attempts to organize the various entities in the county to work on the issue have resulted in a flood of a different kind—press releases, paperwork, and reports. In the aftermath of the Nor’easter of 2007, the county established a Flood Action Task Force and created a program with an $8.3 million budget for four projects, only one of which has been completed. This past spring, the legislature enacted a bill that mandates development of a watershed-based storm water-management plan, implements a county program to match funds for municipal storm water projects, and authorizes the creation of watershed advisory boards. Six months later, only one group, the Saw Mill River Advisory Board, had been organized under the leadership of MaryJane Shimsky.
The County Planning Department is officially the lead agency for the effort. “We’re mandated to create a reconnaissance plan, which pulls together all the studies that have already been done,” County Planning Commissioner Ed Buroughs says. Once the subcommittees have dug the old reports out of the files, the planning department will go to work. “We will then assemble the reconnaissance plan, map it, and, where appropriate, come out with priorities for which projects in which watershed give the biggest bang for the buck,” Buroughs says. “The plan will be presented to the county-wide advisory committee, who will then pass it on to the board of legislators.” There’s no deadline for the process, but maybe the county can build a levy along the Saw Mill River Parkway using piles of studies and other paperwork.
Actually, one public official took action following the muddy mess left by Hurricane Irene. Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner, hearing that debris was clogging the Saw Mill River, put crews into hip waders and sent them into the water to clear it out. Elmsford assigned some men to the project, and Brookfield supplied heavy equipment. “It was mostly trees that had fallen and become lodged in the river, creating dams,” Greenburgh Public Works Commissioner Vic Carosi reports. He says they expended well over 1,000 man-hours to clear just a mile of river from Babbitt Court to the other side of the Saw Mill River Parkway just north of the NYS Thruway Bridge. Along with the fallen tree trunks and storm debris, workers also found old tires, plastic cups, five-gallon cans, and even two abandoned 250-gallon oil tanks. The approximate cost of the project was $28,000, which Feiner says will be billed to FEMA as hurricane damage.
Of course, that’s just one mile out of about 16 where the river parallels the parkway. Wherever it’s part of the state right of way, NYSDOT is responsible for maintenance. “We routinely clean out culverts and ditches along the parkways,” Stepp maintains. “We evaluate the waterways within our jurisdiction and we remove all debris whenever appropriate.”
Define “routinely.” Environmentalist Bob Walters with Groundwork Hudson Valley went to see what the Greenburgh crews were facing. “When I hiked in, I found a lot of trees that had fallen into the river,” he reports. “They weren’t recently downed, either. Many of them had obviously been there for years.” In October, the state let contracts worth about $200,000 for river debris removal on the parkways. The county, not to be outdone, issued a call for citizen volunteers to join in a cleanup of the Bronx River one Sunday in November. About 70 people turned out to help.
Truth be told, flooding probably won’t ever be eliminated from the county’s parkways, according to the Corps of Engineers’ McDonald. “The parkways were built in a flood plain,” she points out. “They weren’t designed to be major commuter arteries. They were designed to be recreational, so they weren’t meant to be used during rain events.” That’s why there are places in Pleasantville where you can stand on the shoulder of the Saw Mill River Parkway and dangle your toe in the water—even when it’s well below flood stage! Look on the other side of the guardrail near Tuckahoe Road and you’ll see the river bubbling along beside your tires. Much the same is true along stretches of the Bronx River Parkway. Keep in mind that when the Bronx River Parkway (the first of its kind) was completed in 1925, it was a whopping 40 feet wide, with four lanes, no median or shoulders, and a 25 mph speed limit. What more did you need for a bucolic Sunday drive in the country? The Saw Mill and Hutch opened not long after. It’s notable that the parkway with the fewest flooding problems is the Sprain, which began construction in 1957 and finished in 1980.
As civil engineer Tom Ahneman points out, “They were dealing with a different set of hydrological facts when these roadways were built.” Most of those facts have to do with property use, which is considerably more intense than when the parkways were built beginning in the 1920s. Instead of woods and houses, the parkways are now more likely to be lined by parking lots, office buildings, and commercial developments.
“You also have to add what’s happened to the riverbeds over the years,” says environmental engineer Rob DeGiorgio. “The Bronx and Saw Mill Rivers just don’t have the flow capacity they had years ago because they have filled up with sediment.” He also suspects the rivers haven’t been dredged in recent years. Senator Chuck Schumer was quick to call for federally financed dredging after Hurricane Irene, but that particular solution doesn’t seem to have many fans. “Dredging is not inexpensive,” DeGiorgio says. “There are also serious environmental concerns.” He adds, “There are all sorts of solutions from pumping to raising the areas out of the flood zones to having some sort of detention system to hold the water back.”
But every solution potentially creates more problems when it comes to making water do what you want it to do. When the Corps of Engineers forced the Saw Mill River into a man-made channel in Chappaqua in the mid-1980s, it solved the problem of flooding in that hamlet but made it worse in Pleasantville, according to retired engineer Fred Haetinger.
Raising the parkway in Pleasantville has also been proposed. “The problem was the cost,” says former County Legislator John Nonna, who was Mayor of Pleasantville not long after the project was proposed in 1993. A county project completed within the past few years raised the Saw Mill Parkway by a few inches in that area, but it has not had a significant impact on the flooding.
At the moment, no one seems to have good near-term solutions. Aside from removing debris and generating piles of paper, current efforts are focused on long-term approaches like requiring builders to design projects that control the flow of storm water away from rivers and parkways. “To many, it doesn’t sound realistic that planting a few trees and putting in a couple of rain barrels can make a big dent in the problem,” says Shimsky. “But if property owners along the rivers follow environmental principles, plant green roofs, and use pervious materials on parking lots, it will help lessen the flooding.”
But even commendably green solutions like these are hampered by jurisdictional issues in Westchester. As Buroughs points out, “Local municipalities control land use, so they need to put these new standards in for any new development going forward.”
Mother Nature doesn’t care about any of this, of course. She’s going to send the rain where she wants as often as she pleases, and Westchester’s drivers are just going to have to deal with it. In the meantime, despite all the sound and fury at the village, county, state, and federal levels, as Fred Haetinger says, “They’re not going to do anything about it except talk.”