Irene: Workers scrambling to get canal open

With massive construction equipment dredging the Mohawk River and debris still choking its channel n

With massive construction equipment dredging the Mohawk River and debris still choking its channel near Lock 8, it’s hard to believe the state Canal Corp. will have the entire system open in about a month.

More than a dozen contractors are racing to repair the scoured riverbanks and damaged removable dams before Thanksgiving so boat traffic trapped at points beyond Lock 17 in Little Falls can travel to points east. There’s still no estimate of what the project will cost, but Canal Corp. Executive Director Brian Stratton is confident the work will be completed on time.

“We’re right on schedule,” he said Friday, as the tug Grand Erie chugged forward to the Mohawk from Lock 8 in Rotterdam. “Yet there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done.”

Already, workers have pulled more than 150 barges worth of down trees from around the locks. Even more could be seen jutting from the river, which is about 12 feet deep at its deepest point near the lock.

Stratton toured the canal by boat as a part of his agency’s annual inspection of the system. This year’s observation gave Stratton and Tom Madison Jr., the acting executive director of the Thruway Authority, a chance to see the progress being made at one of the areas hardest hit by tropical storms Irene and Lee this summer.

Madison said as much as 75 percent of the cost incurred by the repairs should be covered by federal disaster funding. The authority is also exploring whether it can secure federal transportation funding because the canal is designated as part of the marine highway system of the United States.

Still, Madison said the damage to the canal will have a discernible impact on the 2012 budget for the authority, which oversees the Canal Corp. He suggested that the cost of repairs could postpone projects initially slated for next year.

“The damage will definitely impact the way we prioritize projects across the system,” he said.

But Stratton said repairing the canal is essential to protecting a piece of the state economy. He said boat traffic along the Erie Canal — both for leisure and commercial business —generates more than $380 million each year.

“It’s an essential part of the upstate economy,” he said.

Workers are still trying to fill the new channels carved by the Mohawk when it crested during the storms. That means hauling several hundred thousand cubic yards of fill to redirect the river back into its original bed.

The Canal Corp. is also creating a new center span design for the moveable dams between Lock 10 in Amsterdam and Lock 8 — some of the areas hardest hit by the flooding. The goal of the new design is to create a section that could be removed on shorter notice in the event of another flood, said Joe Moloughney, an engineer with the agency.

“That would be the goal, to make it easier to raise them during a high-water event,” he said.

Residents from some of the worst-affected areas of Schenectady County have criticized Canal Corp. officials for not raising the moveable dams in their entirety in the week leading up to Irene. The design of the dams, however, makes raising them a lengthy process that takes weeks instead of days.

Moloughney said the new design will be tested on the three locks first. If it functions well, he said, the design will be implemented on the other moveable dams.

“We need to see what’s feasible in terms of the [dam] structure,” he said.

Further downstream, the concrete dam at Lock 7 in Vischers Ferry remained littered with timber and debris washed there by the flood. The swollen Mohawk smashed through many of the flash boards attached at the top of the dam, effectively lowering the river level by about two feet.

“The steel rods basically failed, which is what they’re designed to do to help control water levels,” said Steve Sweeney, another engineer with the agency.

Sweeney said repairing the battered canal in short order has been difficult, considering widespread damage between Rotterdam and Tribes Hill in Montgomery County. He said coordinating the level of the locks with the needs of workers has been challenging.

“Really, it’s a logistics issue,” he said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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