Photo by Dave Warner – Despite recent media reports that portions of the Erie Canal could be permanently closed as part of an effort to combat aquatic invasive species, officials are seeking to assure stakeholders that such a thing won’t happen.

Officials seek to quell fears stoked by media reports

By DUSTEN RADER

In response to a host of headlines claiming continuous navigation along the Erie Canal could end, stakeholders and recreationalists alike are seeking answers.

The discussion heightened when in October, the confidential “Erie Canal Aquatic Invasive Deterrent Study” prepared for the New York Power Authority by R2 Resource Consultants, Inc. of Washington, was released by The Buffalo News.

The 296-page report proposes ceasing lock operations by permanently closing several gates and installing boat lifts and vessel washing/check stations, as well as the creation of dry reach by draining a section. The main goal of the proposal is to prevent the Erie Canal from serving as a means of allowing invasive aquatic species to spread to other waterways such as the Mohawk River, Hudson River, and Lake Ontario.

According to Alan Vincent, Commissioner of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor Commission, “Severing sections of the Canal would devastate the very nature of the historic waterway which serves both recreational and commercial users.  The Erie Canal was the Gateway to the west and the most important economic driver of its time.  It is the string that ties Albany to Buffalo and all the communities in between.  We can’t interrupt that.”

In contrast to the consultant’s recommendation, Power Authority Director of Media Relations Susan Craig stated Dec. 2: “The Canal Corporation will not be closing any part of the Erie Canal.”

Reimagine the Canals

The report is part of the Reimagine the Canals initiative announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo during the May kickoff of the canal season. The initiative is under the direction of the Power Authority, New York State Canal Corporation, and Cuomo’s Reimagine the Canals Task Force.

During the announcement, Cuomo stated that the goal of the initiative is to examine how the 195-year-old Erie Canal can be reimagined for the 21st century in an effort to boost local economies, inspire new opportunities for tourism and recreation, and strengthen environmental resiliency along the historic waterway.

“The Erie Canal corridor is one of New York’s most iconic assets and remains a key economic driver for the region and the state,” Cuomo stated in a release. “The Canal helped make New York the Empire State and this initiative will reimagine the canal and adapt it for new uses in upstate communities, furthering upstate New York’s unprecedented growth.”

The initiative lists the following goals:

  • Identify potential new uses for the Erie Canal aimed at improving the quality of life for New Yorkers;
  • Evaluate how the Erie Canal can support and enhance economic development along the canal corridor;
  • Find new opportunities to enhance recreation and tourism along the Erie Canal;
  • Assess how the Erie Canal can help mitigate impacts from flooding and ice jams to improve resiliency and restore ecosystems in canal communities;
  • Identify opportunities for using the Erie Canal infrastructure to expand irrigation for Western New York farms.

Closing portions of the canal is not one of the listed goals of the initiative, and would likely impede the stated plan. However, as of publication, Cuomo had not yet responded to the reports of the possible closure of parts of the canal.

State Senator James Tedisco, R-Glenville said, “I would oppose any effort to close part of the Erie Canal, which is so important to our local communities for tourism and economic development, and we have expressed that to the Governor’s Office.”

Concerns regarding the issue were aired during the November meeting of the Reimagine the Canals Task Force, causing a mobilization to get the message of the group back on track. The next meeting of the Task Force is scheduled for today (Dec. 5) in Syracuse.

For more information about the Reimagine the Canals initiative, visit www.ny.gov/programs/reimagine-canals-initiative.

Economic impact

Although local officials have also not yet weighed in on the proposal, in November the Observer-Dispatch of Utica published a letter by Sen. Rachel May, D-Syracuse, and Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon, D-Marcy, touting the legacy of the Erie Canal and its important economic role.

The legislators referenced a 2018 Canal Corporation study that states the economic impact of the Erie Canal on tourism and recreational activities totals nearly $400 million. It adds that the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, which is comprised of 524 miles of historic sites, generates more than $300 million in economic impact, supports 3,240 jobs, and generates nearly $35 million in tax revenue.

Although it is unclear what effect the proposal to close portions of the canal could have on Little Falls, Vincent noted: “Traffic would be reduced affecting a number of retail establishments and reduced usage of the canal marinas in the valley would definitely put a damper on waterfront development.”

Lock E17, the largest on the canal system, is located on the eastern side of the city of Little Falls. It also features the highest lift on the New York State Canal System.

Boaters are encouraged to stop in Little Falls as a pathway to the Adirondack Park. Many amenities are available to travelers and businesses depend on the Erie Canal for its ability to draw tourism. At least 426 boats docked overnight in Little Falls during the 2019 canal season.

Little Falls for the past 32 years has held a week-long Canal Celebration, which recognizes the heritage of a community bound to the canal.

For more information about the canal in Little Falls, visit www.nycanals.com/Little_Falls.

Requests for comment sent to several officials were not answered by publication time. Officials reached out to include: Congressman Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica; Sen. James Seward, R-Oneonta; and Assemblyman Robert Smullen, R-Meco.

Photos by Dave Warner