Flash flooding in Yates County again

John Christensen
The Chronicle Express
The loss of the retaining wall and the foundation has put this Willow Grove house in peril.

KEUKA LAKE – In a repeat of several other storm events earlier this summer, the remnants of tropical storm Fred brought heavy rains and flash flooding to Yates County from Tuesday into Thursday.

Weather watchers around the county reported widely varying rainfall totals from less than three inches to over eight. The hardest hit areas were south of Penn Yan along Keuka Lake. Creeks normally dry at this time of year burst their banks and brought down trees, limbs, boulders and gravel, choking culverts, spilling across roadways, flooding basements, and eroding the landscape.

Highway crew working to clear the culvert at Rte. 54 and Second Milo Road.
Remains of the flood waters that closed Rte. 54 in Milo.
Gravel and stones scraped off Rte. 54 and piled to divert streams back to their courses.

Keuka Lake's level quickly rose by a foot Wednesday night, catching many beachfront and boat owners by surprise. Numerous boats and jetskis were found adrift by the Yates County Sheriff's Marine Patrol after being lifted out of hoists or floated off from beaches.

By Thursday morning Yates County Sheriff Ron Spike and Steuben County Sheriff Jim Allard issued a "no wake" boating advisory. 

"Boaters are cautioned to be observant of floating debris in the water and reduce speeds to no wake as the water has risen considerably, and even over docks in some areas," stated the sheriff's advisory. Several calls were made to 911 during the day regarding boats ignoring the warnings simply for recreation purposes.

The Dock at the Olney Place awash in the flood waters.

Wakeful lakefront homeowners near streams along West Lake Road and Rte. 54/East Lake Road watched amazed as their lawns and driveways were either carved away by the torrents, or covered with rocks, gravel, and floating debris. Others slept through the entire event and awoke to the surprise devastation.

A culvert under Rte. 54 next to Second Milo Road clogged with debris, flowed over the highway, and caused this erosion near Willow Grove in Milo.
Flooding in Willow Grove.
Besides raising the level of Keuka, the storm water deposited huge amounts of gravel, stones. and debris on lakefront properties.

Weather predictions had not forecast such heavy rainfall. The Keuka Lake Outlet Compact (KLOC), which manages the dam and floodgates at Penn Yan, had opened two gates in anticipation of some rain, but that was completely inadequate to what was coming. KLOC Chairman Mark Illig said that four of the six gates were fully open early Thursday morning, but gate no. 1 has had a broken worm gear since last winter and could only be opened about 5 inches. By Thursday afternoon as the lake continued to rise, even the oldest gate, no. 6, commonly called "the Birkett Gate," still made of wood and which must be ratcheted up with levers, was opened despite the risk to the gate. Despite this, the lake level still remains high as the muddy runoff continues to fill Keuka.

Four of the six gates of the dam at Penn Yan were open early Thursday morning. In the foreground, gate no. 1 has had a broken worm gear since last winter and could only be opened five inches. The oldest gate, no. 6, was also opened later as lake levels continued to rise.
That yellow pipe is a NYSEG gas main along Rte. 54 in Milo. NYSEG reports that 144 customers have lost service until this can be repaired.

Other problems that flooding face homeowners. A NYSEG gas main was exposed and broken by the heavy erosion of a stream at Rte. 54 near Willow Grove in Milo. Over 140 gas customers had their service shut off until the gas main can be repaired. Once done, NYSEG will then have to visit each customer to relight every gas appliance safely.

This retaining wall at Willow Grove was no match for the flash flood.

Father down the same stream, a large concrete retaining wall was pealed away from the bank it held back, and a home near it lost the foundation of a large porch that now overhangs the eroded bank. Reconstruction will doubtlessly be a substantial undertaking.

The damage early Thursday morning at Steven & Susan Heller's home on West Lake Road.

Across Keuka on West Lake Road, Steve and Sue Heller's home experienced a near replay of the 2014 flood. The concrete sluiceway they and their neighbor to the south raised the sides of by several feet and extended another 30 feet to the lakeshore after 2014, still proved insufficient. The boulders and gravel came coursing down the artificial channel only to build up at the end like a dam. The water then came over the walls of the sluiceway and deposited many cubic yards of gravel and rocks on their yards and beaches. Brian Thayer was on scene all night with an excavator trying to reopen the original course of the stream and protect the two homes. The Hellers are already planning on extending the sluice further and closing up a side door to their finished basement in preparation for repeat storms.

Steve Heller says they and their neighbors are already planning to extend the concrete sluiceway beside their home.

The massive runoff has even more implications downstream from Keuka. The Penn Yan Sewage Treatment Plant has reported a raw sewage discharge into the Keuka Lake Outlet, bound for Seneca Lake. This discharge was reported at a parking lot at 135 Seneca St. near Birkett Mills. No "floatables" nor odors were detected, but the estimated volume of contaminated stormwater over the 48-hour period is a staggering 36,560,000 gallons. Crews have bermed the area off with straw bales to contain and filter the contaminated water; and barriers have been placed to restrict public access to that part of the Keuka Outlet Trail.

The heavy runoff also triggered a raw sewage spill into the Keuka Lake Outlet, contaminating over 36.5 million gallons of water bound for Seneca Lake.