State’s canals open Friday with normal schedule after abbreviated 2020 season

ERICA MILLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Canal Lock E-7 in Niskayuna is shown amid an off-season overhaul in December 2020.

Canal Lock E-7 in Niskayuna is shown amid an off-season overhaul in December 2020.

WATERFORD — The state canal system is refilled with water and boaters can begin transiting through locks at 7 a.m. Friday.

The 2021 canal season is starting and is expected to end on the Canal Corporation’s normal mid-May to mid-October calendar. It’s a big change from 2020, when COVID put essential maintenance projects on hold midway to completion. The last segment of the canal system couldn’t open until mid-August.

For that reason, 2021 will be a season that stands out as special, but there aren’t any special things on the schedule aside from this return to normalcy.

“We’re really looking forward to this year,” Canal Corp. spokesman Shane Mahar said Thursday.

Once again, there’s no fee for recreational boaters to lock through this season, which is scheduled to continue through to Oct. 13. Operating hours will be 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. at most locks and — until Sept. 15 — 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. at the busiest locks.

In the Capital Region, these are C-1 in Halfmoon, E-7 in Niskayuna and E-8 in Rotterdam.

The seven-month shutdown of the canal system from October to May means boaters can’t go through locks but it isn’t a slack period. It’s a time to repair and rebuild. 

The modern Cayuga-Seneca, Champlain, Erie and Oswego canals are a century old, and replacements for many of the moving parts need to be fabricated in-house when they wear out.

Over the last seven months in the Capital Region, the canal staff performed various repairs on Locks C-3, C-10 and E-11, but the big project was lock E-7 in Niskayuna.

Every decade or so, each lock in the system is blocked off with temporary dams and drained so every component of it can be inspected and refurbished or replaced. It was E-7’s turn this time.

The work continued beyond the lock, on dry land — Lock 7 Road in Niskayuna has been repaved in a joint effort by the town and Canal Corp.

“It’s a pretty detailed, pretty extensive operation,” Mahar said. “We do this type of rehab at each of the locks every 10 years, on average.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York in March 2020, the Canal Corp. was put on pause, like many other workplaces and the essential maintenance work on the canal was stopped midway through. Locks didn’t begin operation for weeks or even months past the normal start date.

This past off-season, Mahar said, went normally and smoothly. There was a resurgence of COVID in late autumn and early winter but no resulting shutdown.

“We’ve been able to bring everything online pretty much on schedule,” he said.

The one hiccup as opening day arrives is the lingering impact of the recent collapse of a bank on a creek that’s a tributary to the canal in Palmyra, southeast of Rochester. Repairs are expected to take two more weeks. 

Until that work is complete, boats with a draft of more than 6 feet won’t be able to navigate between locks E-29 and E-30.

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