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Potsdam plans flooding prevention

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POTSDAM — House hunter Doyle R. Dean was looking at a home on Broad Street earlier this year. It was within his budget, and not far from his workplace at SUNY Potsdam. However, a quick trip to the basement revealed a problem.

“When I was looking at the house I came down and saw the water,” Mr. Dean said.

He purchased two sump pumps shortly after purchasing the house in May, and so far he has had no problems. But Potsdam residents who live nearby are no strangers to flooding, and the village is looking to improve its stormwater management infrastructure to keep the rain out of people’s basements.

The problem first became obvious on Sept. 30, 2010, when a 3-inch storm provided the finale to an entire month of rain.

“The ground just couldn’t take it anymore,” recalled Bruce J. Henderson, public works superintendent.

Dozens of homes flooded, and in the aftermath the village commissioned a study to find out how it could prevent a similar level of damage from happening again.

The problem is one shared by communities around the nation, according to Mr. Henderson.

All of the drains were built at a time when nobody expected the village to grow to its current size.

“Everything is undersized. Our infrastructure was built back in the 1950s,” he said.

One major problem area is even older. An underground canal runs beneath Broad Street, channeling much of the village’s stormwater into the Raquette River. It was once a normal canal, but it was buried more than a century ago, with a vault built over it, to make way for new roads.

In the decades since, builders ran water, sewer, gas and electric lines through the vaulted canal.

These blocked debris, allowing it to build up and stem the flow of stormwater. As far as anyone can remember, it has never been cleared out.

In recent years, segments of the canal’s roof have crumbled, creating sinkholes in village roads that have been repaired hastily.

Some residents feel the village has waited too long to address the problem.

“They don’t seem to maintain it properly,” said Lance W. Weber, a longtime resident of the oft-flooded Waverly Street, which sits above the underground canal. “They’d rather sweep the streets than clean the culverts.”

This soon may change, Mr. Henderson said. The village is looking into grant funding to help with stormwater projects, including clearing out the canal.

Village Planning and Development Coordinator Frederick J. Hanss said a grant application is under consideration, although he declined to go into specifics until things were further along. However, he did say that any steps taken likely would be the start of a long and expensive process.

“This is a problem that’s taken 100 years to reach where it is, and it’s not going to be an easy fix,” he said.

In the meantime, the village has focused its efforts on not making the problem worse. A recent change in construction codes reduced the number of parking spaces required for businesses, meaning less asphalt for water to run off.

Major construction projects are scrutinized intensely to make sure they do not add any unnecessary burden to the already-taxed system.

Improvements will be slow, Mr. Henderson said, just as they are in many communities struggling with outdated infrastructure.

When a massive, once-in-a-lifetime storm like the one that struck in 2010 hits, even the best planning can do only so much. But by taking the necessary steps, the village can ease the burden, he said.

“It’s never going to be easy, but we can do preventive practices,” he said.

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