Tugboats, icebreaker to be deployed to break up ice jams along Mohawk

ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Tugboats Margot, front, and Benjamin Elliot, are docked at Lock 7 on the Mohawk River in Niskayuna on Monday.

Tugboats Margot, front, and Benjamin Elliot, are docked at Lock 7 on the Mohawk River in Niskayuna on Monday.

SCHENECTADY — An icebreaker and tugboats will be deployed this winter along the Mohawk River and Erie Canal as part of a pilot project to break up ice jams that have long plagued the waterways.

The effort is part of the state’s “Reimagine the Canals” initiative, the effort rolled out earlier this year to improve resiliency along the flood-prone corridors.

Union College Professor Dr. John Garver, who has long studied ice jams and flooding, called the plans an “important first step.”

“The goal of these efforts is to break ice up and move it more efficiently through the Mohawk channel, especially in the problematic area between the Rexford Gorge and the Vischer Ferry Dam,” Garver said in a released statement. “And if these actions are successful, there may well be a significant reduction in backup flooding due to ice jams.”

Localities along the Mohawk have long grappled with overflows.

Tropical Storm Irene caused massive flooding in 2011, while ice jams have led to more limited amounts in the years since, including a 17-mile jam that flooded several streets in the city’s Stockade neighborhood in 2018.

As part of the pilot project, tugboats moored at Lock E-7 at the Vischer Ferry Dam in Niskayuna will be used to limit the formation of sheet ice in the Erie Canal and Mohawk River upstream of the Vischer Ferry Dam through and past the Rexford Gorge.

If proven to be effective, the icebreaker, which is formally dubbed a “Watermaster Amphibious Multipurpose Dredger,” may play a role in future ice-breaking activities as the ice jam mitigation program develops, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Office, which announced the program on Monday.

The concepts were generated by a panel Cuomo appointed last year to come up with new ideas for the waterway’s future.

More may follow.

Ultimately, the $300 million Reimagine The Canals initiative — which goes far beyond the river-flow efforts and includes dozens of components up and down the canalway — will incorporate a coordinated system of interventions, including “potentially altering the width and depth of the Mohawk River channel in critical locations, retrofitting the Vischer Ferry Dam with variable crest gates to enable the raising and lowering of water levels upstream at critical times and monitoring ice conditions with cameras and sensors, according to the governor’s office.

Garver called numerical modeling a “major, historic and spectacular breakthrough” in understanding ice jams, and will be a central piece in mitigation strategies.

Beyond flooding, Reimagine the Canals also aims to enhance irrigation and recreational fishing, restore wetlands and create recreational activities on the Erie Canal to boost tourism.

The effort is a joint undertaking between the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Clarkson University, Union College, United States Geological Survey, National Weather Service and the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

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