January 27, 2022

Efforts continue to prevent more Harford flooding

Kevin Conlon/city editor

Neighbors’ yards on Route 221 in Harford have been flooded since last week when a hillside collapsed into the East Branch of Owego Creek.

Cortland County is home to many scenic hillsides and creeks — but add heavy rains and you suddenly have a recipe for flooding that can damage homes and roads.

That was the case the day before Thanksgiving when a large section of a hillside in Harford near Route 221 collapsed into the East Branch of Owego Creek, causing flooding around nearby homes.

This has been a recurring problem in the area.

The state responded quickly, as the Department of Environmental Conservation authorized the Department of Transportation to bring in heavy equipment to clear the creek.

“On Nov. 24, 2021, DEC approved a temporary work window waiver for the state Department of Transportation to clear woody debris and soil blocking the East Branch of Owego Creek in an effort to prevent damage downstream to the DOT bridge and protect the safety of the highway and traveling public,” DEC representative Stephanie Webb said in an email. “DOT employed best management practices for erosion and sediment control and completed the work.”

“While the area in question is not within NYSDOT’s right of way, our Cortland County residency worked to clear debris to help mitigate future flooding incidents and better protect the bridge on Route 200 that crosses the creek,” said Curtis Jetter, a DOT public information officer. “We continue to work collaboratively with DEC and the Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District to address this matter.”

While the immediate damage was cleared, the threat of similar problems remains, said Amanda Barber, manager of the Soil and Water Conservation District.

“That has been an area of ongoing concern, probably over 20 years there has been erosion,” Barber said Wednesday.

She explained that there are problems at the top and bottom of the steep hillside. The base along the creek is eroding, making it unstable, and when the steep hill becomes soaked with rainwater, the conditions are ripe for collapse, Barber said.

The county has worked with the property owner, Texas Eastern Products Pipeline Co., to stabilize the hillside over the years and a Soil and Water Conservation District employee had been out to the site days before the collapse, Barber said.

Potential solutions include stabilizing the creek bank, cutting trees and adding vegetative cover on the hillside, she said.

“The first step is to keep the base where it is,” Barber said. “That is probably what we would try to do. … If the stream bank and toe of the bank are stabilized, eventually the upper bank will stabilize. It (also) depends on what is on the top.”

Another problem is that the creek is a trout stream, which limits when it can be accessed for clearing soil and trees, she said. A DEC permit is required before work can be done to avoid disturbing the fish population.

The county Legislature allocated $300,000 last month to the Soil and Water Conservation District for a stream corridor management, which could help deal with problems across the county, potentially including the Harford area where the hillside collapsed.

But that is still not enough money to correct all of the problems, said Barber, who is working with her staff to establish criteria for determining which projects to prioritize. The agency is also seeking grants to pay for projects.

“We are trying to find new funds, especially for private landowners,” Barber said. “With community support and sponsorship, we can do more.”