SARANAC LAKE - Village workers opened the floodgates on the Lake Flower dam Wednesday to try to bring down the lake level and reduce pressure on the dam and the Main Street bridge that crosses it.
But successive releases of more and more water through the floodgates failed to reduce the rising lake level, and by late evening, the effort took a major step backward.
Around 7 p.m., village officials were forced to close one of the dam's floodgates due to fears that it was eroding a peninsula of land behind the village Water Department building, which is crossed by a water main that feeds the village water tank on View Street.
Water rushes out of one of two floodgates on the Lake Flower Dam in the village of Saranac Lake around 7 p.m. Wednesday.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
The decision left only one floodgate operable, so the amount of water the village was able to push through the dam Wednesday night was actually less than it was just hours earlier. Officials said that could lead to more flooding problems above the dam on Lake Flower, which could put more pressure on the bridge and the dam.
"There's a potential we're going to flood the park out, we're going to put more pressure on the bridge and eventually the water could come over the bridge," Franklin County Emergency Services Director Ricky Provost said at a Wednesday night press conference at the village firehouse, which was being used as an emergency operations center.
Overnight, as another series of thunderstorms dumped more rain on the area, the village decided to reopen the closed floodgate 6 inches. Despite that, the water level of the lake rose another 2 to 3 inches, village Manager John Sweeney said this morning.
Downstream in the village, the Saranac River remained high and continued to overflow its banks in several locations this morning. Marking it on the lower dining area of the former Dew Drop Inn, the water level appeared the same or slightly higher than it was last night.
Provost, Sweeney and other officials have stressed that they have no reason to believe the dam is in danger of failure or collapse. Officials from the state Department of Environmental Conservation inspected it around 4 p.m. Wednesday, Provost said.
"They feel there's no threat to the dam," he said.
However, officials are worried about the county-owned Main Street bridge, which village police closed to both vehicles and pedestrians Wednesday night.
"There is some concern about the bridge, which is taking about 2 or 3 inches of water sideways," Provost said. "It's not meant to do that, and it's also not meant to be lifted. That bridge is there to be run over, not pressured up from the bottom."
Sweeney said the water level in Lake Flower, already swollen from melting snow and rain over the past two weeks, climbed 9 inches overnight Tuesday and continued to rise during the day Wednesday, even as village officials opened the dam's floodgates wider.
Anticipating more rain Wednesday night and this morning, Provost said they wanted to release more water from the dam.
"We wanted to buy ourselves as much room in the lake as we possibly could," he said.
Village officials were also forced to open the floodgates wider because the DEC couldn't control the flow of water upsteam, where it has two locks on the Saranac chain of lakes.
"At the upper and lower locks, the water has breached the top of the doors," Doug McCabe, a DEC conservation operations supervisor, told the Enterprise at 12:30 p.m.
A state of emergency was declared in the village at 2:30 p.m.
The situation at midday prompted Franklin County Emergency Services to make the first in a series of reverse-911 calls to residents of the river's "inundation area," which stretches from the village to Union Falls, warning them that they may have to evacuate.
Then village officials decided to open the floodgates another 6 inches at 4 p.m. Village police and volunteer firefighters went door-to-door, evacuating residents from shoreline homes and apartment buildings, businesses and parking lots along the river, primarily in the Dorsey Street area.
But Provost said Wednesday night that few people in that area actually evacuated their homes, despite repeated warnings about the possibility of rising waters. An American Red Cross shelter had been set up for evacuees at the First United Methodist Church on Church Street but no one stayed there Wednesday night.
The scene downtown
As news of the pending 4 p.m. release of more water spread through the village, crowds gathered on the vehicle and pedestrian bridges that span the river, though police and firefighters eventually ordered them to stay off the bridges.
As a state police helicopter circled above, the siren at the village firehouse sounded to mark the moment the additional water was being let out of the dam. But there was no visible surge of water down the river. Instead, the river continued to rise slowly.
"I thought it would be fun to watch, but so far it's like watching paint dry," Peter Wilson, owner of Major Plowshares Army-Navy surplus store, said as he stood along the Broadway bridge. "But it's fun. It's an excuse to be outside on a nice day."
Dozens of people could be seen sitting near or walking along the river and the lake in the afternoon sunshine, gawking at and snapping pictures of the surging water and otherwise enjoying the first day of the year with temperatures in the 70s.
Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department Chief Brendan Keough has since asked people to stay away from the river and its banks.
The village opened the floodgates another 6 inches at 5 p.m. and again at 6 p.m. But the effort failed to reduce the water level of the lake any more.
"We opened the dam a total of 31 inches today with very little result on the upside of the dam towards Lower Saranac," Provost said. "We're lowering it as fast as we can, but it's a balancing act because we don't want to flood out the people below the dam."
The successive dam releases were stopped for several hours after village Wastewater Treatment Plant Operator Kevin Pratt found sinkholes and cracks in the ground on the peninsula behind the Water Department, presumably from water rushing out of one of the dam's floodgates. Village officials closed that floodgate, but opened it 6 inches overnight when the heavy rain started. Sweeney said the village may open it more today while continuing to monitor the erosion of the peninsula.
"My biggest concern is our water line is there and we don't want to jeopardize it," he said. "Unlike what happened in Moriah, where they lost the bridges and the water and sewer, we're trying to mitigate both. That's what we're focused on."
Keeping the water in check
As water rose Wednesday, local officials, residents and business owners along the river and on the lake were working hard.
Just downstream from the dam, a team of town of Harrietstown, village of Saranac Lake and county Highway Department workers, and volunteers were filling sandbags and placing them at the back of the town hall, where water from the river had seeped into a room containing town records.
At the Warehouse shopping plaza on Woodruff Street along the Saranac River, Mike and Gar Munn of J.M. Munn Business Machines came to work Wednesday morning to find their business flooded. By 10 a.m., about 4 inches of water filled the front part of the store, while the water was 6 to 8 inches high in the back, lower portion of the building. The water continued to rise during the day and spread across the plaza's parking lot.
"We've been in a state of standby anticipating this moment, and here it is," Mike Munn said.
At one point, Jim Minnie of Onsite Computer Service, which is also in the plaza, took out his canoe and paddled around the parking lot. Later, a crew of village and town workers showed up and placed sandbags across the parking lot.
Just upstream, crews placed sandbags around the back of Scott's Florist and across the river at the back of the building that houses the Left Bank Cafe.
Above the dam, water had climbed over a concrete embankment and was pooling up in parts of Riverside Park. The boat launch on Lake Flower was completely submerged, as were several docks along the lake.
At Gauthier's Saranac Lake Inn, Lake Flower had already flooded two rooms on the motel's lower level as of 3 p.m. and was threatening another 10 rooms. Owners Dan and Doug Brownell were working with a sandbagging crew from the village to hold back the rising water.
"It's supposed to get worse," Dan Brownell said. "It's supposed to go up like another foot or something, so we're taking preventive measures. The village was nice enough to come over and give us some sandbags."
On Lower Saranac Lake, Kathy Holland of Holland Property Management was checking the grounds of the Ampersand Bay Resort and Boat Club around 11 a.m. Although the high water had pooled up in various areas across the property, Holland said most of the water damage was to the resort's marina, which was partially submerged by midday.
"It's about as bad as I've ever seen," she said.