By Jay Lawson
Many visitors and seasonal residents looking to spend the Memorial Day weekend boating on the Fulton Chain of Lakes found themselves dismayed at water levels that were more than a foot below normal for this time of year.
“Having traveled 2,500 miles to enjoy our summer at camp in Old Forge was I ever surprised to find nothing under my dock on the Channel but mud,” David Lemire wrote in an email to The Weekly Adirondack.
Lemire said he had been following the Old Forge winter while at his home in Scottsdale, AZ.
“I had cheered local businesses all winter as I read reports of plentiful snow,” he said.
Now he wonders why the spring melt has left the lake far from full.
“Where did it go?” he said of last season’s snow.
As February ended, data records showed Fulton Chain water levels to be on par with historical averages.
Then, despite a history of upward movement, the Fulton Chain’s water level dropped in March 2015.
So much so, that it was more than a foot below the mark by April 1st.
This was partially due to a late thaw, according to Robert Foltan, Chief Engineer for the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District (HRBRRD) in Albany, which controls the Fulton Chain.
“The spring freshet didn’t start until almost two weeks later than normal, not until the first week in April,” Foltan said.
On a positive note, “stored precipitation” was solid going into April. Water content in the unmelted snow was 51 percent higher than the historical average, according to the HRBRRD’s “snow survey.”
And at Seventh Lake, the snow’s water content was even higher at 67 percent above average.
This indicated potential for better than average run-off into the lakes.
But, many factors can throw that potential off, according to Foltan, and environmental conditions broke in exactly the wrong direction.
“We had the right temperatures for loss of all that water content,” he said.
The thaw wasn’t accompanied by rain, so the melted snow didn’t get washed into the rivers, as was the hope.
“And we had forty-degree days and 25-degree nights… so it evaporated,” Foltan said.
Even with the disappointing run-off, the Fulton Chain’s water level had pulled within six inches of its historical average by mid-April.
There have been few bright spots since.
Precipitation for April was 3.1 inches, a little shy of the 3.8 inch historical average.
The water level stalled again, dropping back to a foot below normal by May 1st.
Dry conditions persisted, continuing unabated to the present day, according to Foltan.
“We’ve had 36 percent of our average precipitation in May, which is a pretty significant amount not to have received,” he said.
“As a result, we have made every effort to conserve every bit of water we could.”
The gate at the Old Forge dam has been closed to release only four cubic feet of water per second, according to Foltan.
“That represents six percent of the historic average release made in May.”
The rest is in the hands of Mother Nature, he said.
“When we receive additional precipitation and run-off, it will collect and fill the reservoirs the rest of the way. But since it has been so dry and we haven’t received any precipitation to speak of—and we haven’t had any in-flow—there is less water in the reservoir.”
How much rain will be needed to raise the water 1.22 feet to its normal level?
“We don’t have the capability or the expertise to [analyze] all the factors that go into determining run-off resulting from precipitation,” Foltan said.
The primary purpose of HRBRRD is to provide flood protection and then augmentation throughout the remainder of the year, according to Foltan.
“The augmentation portion of the operating year includes draw-down of the reservoirs in preparation for the receiving of springtime freshet and runoff from snow melt and rain.”
So, the function of the dams at Old Forge and Sixth Lake is not unlike others managed by HRBRRD at Stillwater, Indian Lake and Sacandaga Lake.
“They vary only slightly in that we maintain a certain elevation throughout the summer to provide some added benefit for recreation purposes,” Foltan said.
After summer, a draw-down is implemented through mid-March.
This allows for the collection of runoff in the reservoirs, which helps mitigate flood problems downriver.
After the run-off, and until “ice out,” the Fulton Chain’s water level is held to about 1 foot, 9 inches below its optimal summer level.
This is to protect against ice damage to docks and boathouses, and is done in response to property owner concerns, according to Foltan.
“So to try to mitigate that [damage], we release water and maintain the elevation of the reservoirs rather than just allowing it to refill before that ice has melted,” he said.
“We keep the reservoirs slightly lower than full pond by releasing the spring flows that are coming into the reservoirs. Then, as soon as that ice has softened and/or melted, we close the gates down and resume the refilling, until the reservoirs are full.”
This year the water level was lowered and, due to the absence of runoff and precipitation, has never recovered.
The pre-ice-out restriction that is usually lifted about April 15th, was never reached this year until May 1st—long after ice-out.
That left precious few weeks for Fulton Chain waters to rise the more one-foot-plus necessary to reach customary Memorial weekend levels.
“Our other reservoirs are equally proportionately low at this point, with the exception of Indian Lake which, because of its being farther north and east in the Adirondacks, was not subject to the same set of [weather conditions],” Foltan said.
The lowering of the Fulton Chain reservoir is consistent with historic practice and engineering analysis, according to Foltan.
It considers the amount of water in the snow pack and anticipated rainfall based on historic averages.
“The [reservoirs] are lowered appropriately,” Foltan said.
As for refilling the reservoirs, the key factor is the rainfall, he said.
“In years when you have insufficient rainfall, in hindsight it certainly could have been beneficial [to draw-down less]. But the other side of the coin is that you raise the water and damage many homes, docks and boathouses. And that tends to be an unfavorable decision to make,” Foltan said.
And the current dam procedure in Old Forge has been time tested, according to Foltan.
“It has been operated that way by me for 16 years and by my predecessor for several decades. Generally there’s no problem,” he said.