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The St. Regis Falls dam on Monday. Photo: John Carr, Blue Mountain Engineering, provided by Everett Smith
The St. Regis Falls dam on Monday. Photo: John Carr, Blue Mountain Engineering, provided by Everett Smith

Surging rivers hit roads, damage hydro dam

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Despite last night's cold weather, flood watches and warnings remain in effect for all of the North Country and Vermont. Significant flooding, sparked by rain and snow melt, has already been reported in much of the region, with a state of emergency declared in St. Lawrence County and roads closed by high water in many counties.

At this hour, the National Weather Service is reporting moderate flooding on the Black River in Watertown and the the Hudson River at North Creek.

A National Grid substation on Rt. 53 in St. Lawrence County was inundated by water on Tuesday, but National Grid spokeswoman Virginia Limmiatis says the 1300 customers served by that substation are now getting their power from another feeder.

The high water is also putting pressure on the region's dams. On the east branch of the St. Regis River in St. Regis Falls, a hydro dam owned by Azure Mountain Power was damaged this week by ice and high water.

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Reported by

Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

When Azure Mountain Power co-owner Everett Smith was watching ice chunks flow over the dam into the St. Regis river on Monday, he didn’t think he had a problem.  

"It was a beautiful day yesterday, sun shining, as the ice melted chunks of ice came floating down the river," Smith said. "and it was kind of fun to see them going over the flashboards." 

Remember that word, flashboard. That’s important.

"But eventually some of the ice chunks got thicker and thicker and they started knocking down my flashboards."

So what is a flashboard? It’s those wooden boards you see at the top of some types of dams. They’re held in place by water pressure — but when that pressure gets really high, they fly off. The water level drops.

And that’s the thing. Smith says those flashboards are designed to fail. Their job is to lower water levels in a dam. So that dramatic scene of wood popping off and churning down the river? He says when it gives way, it doesn’t mean the dam has failed.

"The fact is no the dam is not washed out, the flashboards have gone down, and there’s so much water going over that you hardly see a little ripple in the river but you can see where the leading edge of the dam is and it’s still there, it’s just four feet underwater." 

Smith says the dam probably did get banged up from all that ice and heavy water. 

"I’m sure it’s somewhat damaged," he says. "We’ll see in a few days what the condition is."

Smith says once the water recedes, he’ll replace the flashboards. He says he’s already gotten the lumber sawn.

High water in Saranac Lake leaves only a few inches of clearance under the Main St. bridge. Photo: Mark Kurtz
High water in Saranac Lake leaves only a few inches of clearance under the Main St. bridge. Photo: Mark Kurtz
In Saranac Lake, meanwhile, village Mayor Clyde Rabideau says the community is watching their dam closely as snowmelt surges down from the Saranac chain of lakes into the narrow river.

"We monitor it every single day, especially this time of year," said Rabideau. "We’re 15 inches over spill way. We’ve got 42 inches open on the flood gates. I know all of the numbers up to the minute. We do have 12 inches over at the Moose Pond Road, so that’s of a concern, and that’s down river. Upriver, the DEC is going to let out some more water, so it’s a big balancing act. It goes on every minute of the day in the spring time."

Our Adirondak reporter Brian Mann spent much of the day traveling through the flood-affected area in the mountains on Tuesday.  He checked in from Ausable Forks.

"I’m walking along the east branch of the Ausable River, and the water is very high here," Mann reported. "It’s obviously just above flood stage. But it’s not high enough that it’s actually encroached on the highway here. It is in the trees."

"You can see it rushing along with debris and branches and twigs. The ground here is just saturated with the recent snow melt. So for the next 24 hours, local officials, the National Weather Service, and the state are going to be watching these rivers very closely to see if they’ll push up into the moderate or heavy flood stage."


Full disclosure: Everett Smith is married to Martha Foley, news director at North Country Public Radio. Martha did not play any editorial role in this story.

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