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Home » Schuyler County » Watkins Glen » Photos show gravel mine sediment washes into drainage ditch designed to protect Watkins Glen from flooding

Photos show gravel mine sediment washes into drainage ditch designed to protect Watkins Glen from flooding

  • / Updated:
  • Peter Mantius 

The drainage ditch that serves as the Village of Watkins Glen’s first line of defense against flooding is filling up with sediment, raising doubts about whether it remains a reliable guard against extreme rain events.

“I don’t think the ditch is capable of handling a 100-year flood any more,” said Phil Barnes, a Schuyler County legislator who lives about 800 feet downhill from it. “The banks aren’t that high. It’s almost useless.”

Phil Barnes

A primary source of the accumulating sediment is the Padua Ridge gravel mine, which is counting on the village ditch below it to absorb overflows from its catchment basins — though only during events worse than 100-year storms, it says.

But Barnes claims he has photographic evidence that leaks of stormwater and sediment from the mine are routine rather than rare. He noted that three bales of hay that were placed in the ditch have failed to block the flows.

The Watkins Glen Drainage Easement passes within 100 feet of an apartment complex and runs about six-tenths of a mile before reaching Quarter Mile Creek, which empties into Seneca Lake. 

The ditch was designed by the Army Corps of Engineers in response to severe village flooding in the 1960s — before the gravel mine and before it became widely understood that climate change was steadily making matters worse.

“Overall, Watkins Glen has a severe risk of flooding over the next 30 years, which means flooding is likely to impact day-to-day life within the community,” riskfactor.com, a climate change analysis website, reported last year. The site calculated that 544 properties in the village have greater than a one-in-four chance of being severely affected over the next three decades.

Barnes and the Schuyler County Legislature, among many others, are concerned that a recent proposal to expand the mine could raise flood risks even higher for the village down the hill.

The owner of the 14.33-acre mine, Martin Wojcik, has applied for a state permit to quintuple its size to 75.28 acres. 

On Monday, the Schuyler County Legislature passed its second resolution opposing the plan, citing a letter from an Albany attorney who called on the state to order a more rigorous study of flood risks.

Wojcik has told the state Department of Environmental Conservation that the mine will manage stormwater within its own boundaries except perhaps when a 100-year flood arrives. 

“An emergency spillway within the stormwater management area (of the mine) will be constructed to allow runoff to the (village) drainage easement when demand is needed,” Wojcik’s draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) states. “Overflow should only occur when a storm event exceeds the 100-year event.”

The 784-page DEIS was written to comply with the DEC’s 2008 Final Scoping Outline. That 16-year-old document never addressed how the ditch itself would fare if it had to absorb mine runoff during particularly brutal storm. Neither does the DEIS.

Parts of the Village of Watkins Glen flooded in 2021.

But such storms are becoming much more likely, according to William F. Demarest III’s letter cited Monday by the Schuyler legislators. He pointed to one 2023 study that found that “extreme precipitation events” in the Northeast have increased by 60 percent since the 1950s. Another recent study suggests that 100-year storms are “likely to occur in Schuyler County every 26 to 50 years.”

Demarest’s 13-page letter, which may be intended to serve as a legal warning to the DEC, catalogues a host of alleged deficiencies in Wojcik’s DEIS. It calls on the agency to order him to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement that corrects the DEIS and analyzes how the proposed expansion would affect flooding, truck traffic, noise levels, vibration and the hydrology the Watkins Glen State Park, the mine’s neighbor.

Demarest was retained by Michael Lausell, another Schuyler County legislator.

Meanwhile, Barnes recently hosted State Sen. Tom O’Mara (R-Big Flats) at his home on Second Street, where he shared his drone pictures of the sediment-filled drainage ditch 800 feet up the hill.

O’Mara, whose Senate district includes Schuyler County, did not respond to phone and email requests for comment on his reaction to the pictures. 

In February, he wrote a letter to the DEC requesting that the Feb. 28 public comment deadline it had imposed for the Padua project be extended at least 90 days. The agency agreed to extend it 45 days — to April 13. But O’Mara hasn’t taken firm public position for or against the expansion.

While the drainage ditch was designed to protect the village, it is actually located in the Town of Dix.

In recent years, the town has tried to control sediment entering the village’s ditch by slowing flows from a smaller ditch that feeds into it.

The smaller ditch, which runs from a culvert under State Route 409, has experienced exceptionally heavy flows that reportedly coincided with excavation activity on Wojcik property north of 409. That ditch flows past Billy Pylypciw’s house on Division Street about 600 feet northwest of the Watkins drainage ditch.

In comments to the DEC on the gravel mine expansion plan, Pylypciw said sediment-filled waters used to gush past his home toward the village ditch.

“The Town of Dix rebuilt the ditch in front of my house in an effort to control the rising waters,” he wrote. The town also replaced a 12-inch pipe with a 24-inch pipe near his home, but the larger pipe turned out to be “totally inadequate for controlling the waters.” 

In his formal comment to the DEC, Pylypciw credited the agency with ordering Wojcik to limit waters flowing through the 409 culvert. “He could’ve very well corrected his runoff to spare me, and the (village) diversion ditch, from his runoff, but he chose not to, only taking action once he was forced to,” he wrote.

This map shows the village drainage easement east of the Padua Ridge gravel mine.

In the village ditch below Pylypciw’s house, a variety of plants and small trees have sprouted in the sediment.

Wojcik did not respond to an email requesting his comment on Barnes’ photo of the village ditch that featured the three bales of hay.