Capital Region

State pilot program uses tugboats in initial effort to mitigate ice jams

The tugboat Margot breaks ice on the Mohawk River near Lock E-7 in Niskayuna on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, as part of an effort to mitigate the impact of ice on neighboring communities.

The tugboat Margot breaks ice on the Mohawk River near Lock E-7 in Niskayuna on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, as part of an effort to mitigate the impact of ice on neighboring communities.

For Colleen Macaulay hearing the tugboat whistle as it worked along the Mohawk River to break up sheets of ice one morning this week was sweet music.

“It was fun to hear the tugboat right on the water,” said Macaulay, who lives on Front Street and is the vice president of the Stockade Association.

The tugboats are the first step in a pilot program meant to mitigate ice jams along the Erie Canal and Mohawk River as part of the state’s five-year $300 million Reimagine the Canals initiative through the New York Power Authority and Canal Corp.

“Managing the canal system is complex,” said Shane Mahar, the spokesman for the Power Authority and Canal Corp.

The canal, which is primarily used for recreational purposes now, sees large sheets of ice form in the winter. Without enough room for it to flow, the ice jams, the water rises and flooding occurs.

It’s an issue that people living along the river, particularly those in Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood, have dealt with for years.

“It can cause millions of dollars of damage,” Mahar said.

Ice jams make up 80 percent of the flooding occurrences.

“There are a number of houses that get chronically flooded out,” said John Garver, a geology professor at Union College, who was on the Power Authority’s task force for working to resolve the ice jams.

But with a plan in place, the Power Authority hopes to prevent flooding and save the Stockade.

Breaking up ice

Mahar said the tugboats launched on Dec. 18 from Lock E-7 in Niskayuna, moving between Vischer Ferry Dam and the Rexford Bridge breaking up ice that has formed along the surface to keep it moving downstream.

“This is the first time we have ever put a tugboat on the Mohawk River in the heart of winter,” Mahar said.

On Monday, warmer temperatures allowed the tugboats to move further upstream through the Stockade and to Lock E-8 in Scotia, breaking ice along the 12-mile stretch.

Macauley said it’s evident the tugboats are working as sheets of broken ice flow freely down the river–a sight that can be seen driving across Freemans Road Bridge.

“It’s long overdue, but it’s greatly welcomed,” Macauley said.

Garver said the problem arises partially because the Vischer Ferry Dam is permanent, meaning it doesn’t lift in the winter like the other locks to allow the ice to flow under it. The other problem is the canal narrows in the Rexford Knolls area and ice tends to bottleneck there.

“What happens is the ice is relatively thick in this area to start with but as it starts to get pushed and moves downstream it all jams together in that narrow spot,” Garver said. “It’s a little bit like when everyone’s trying to go to the Yankees game and they’re all trying to go through the turnstiles at the same time–it slows everybody down. The ice slows down.”

The tugboats are meant to break up the sheets of ice before they jam in the narrow stretch of the canal.

Garver said residents have to understand that once an ice jam forms, there are no practical solutions to break the ice jam up.

“The ice breaker cannot go in and try to break up an ice jam,” he said.

More work to come

Breaking up the sheets of ice before they jam is just one step in the process, Mahar said.

He said there will be a report after winter to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the tugboats and lessons learned from the pilot program. That information will be used to make decisions going forward.

The Power Authority is also working on an ice jam warning system.

Garver said it will likely be a color-coded system. Yellow would represent that there is ice and it may break up in a week or so depending on the weather.

“We’re in what we would essentially call yellow condition right now,” Garver said.

Orange would represent that ice jams are imminent. The red condition would alert people that there is an ice jam.

“Ice jams have formed, they’re moving down the river,” he said.

However, Garver said he is not sure where the rollout of that system stands right now or if it will be made into an app residents in the Stockade could easily access.

Mahar also said there are discussions about widening and deepening channels of the canal in critical locations. The Power Authority is also looking at retrofitting the Vischer Ferry Dam with gates that would allow the water to be raised or lowered.

“There’s a lot more info work on the horizon for this,” Mahar said.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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