ALBANY — State canal system administrators have two goals right now, one short-term and one long-term.
In the short term, they’re hoping the heavy bouts of rain ease up so the waterways become safe for navigation and the canal system can be fully opened. Five days after the designated opening day, much of the system remains shut down due to high and/or fast-moving water.
The entire Oswego and Champlain canals are closed, and with Lake Ontario and Lake Champlain both at flood stage, there’s no timetable for opening the canals that lead to them. The east end of the Erie Canal is open only from Waterford to Amsterdam, and with advisories on reduced clearance under some of the lower bridges. State Canal Corporation employees are continuing to clear debris and place buoys in the closed sections as it becomes safe to do so.
In the longer term, canal administrators and state leaders are looking beyond water to economics and impact.
As they marked the 195th opening day of the Erie Canal on May 17, the governor’s office announced formation of a task force to re-imagine the Erie Canal, so as to “boost local economies, inspire new opportunities for tourism and recreation, and strengthen environmental resiliency.”
The task force will be led by New York State Thruway Authority Chairwoman Joanie Mahoney and has multiple goals:
- Identify new uses of the Erie Canal that would improve quality of life for New Yorkers;
- Evaluate how it can support and enhance economic development within its corridor;
- Find new opportunities to enhance recreation and tourism in the corridor;
- Assess how the canal can help mitigate impacts from flooding and ice jams to improve resiliency and restore ecosystems;
- Identify ways canal infrastructure could be used to expand irrigation for western New York farms.
The task force follows on the 2018 Reimagine the Canals Competition staged by the New York Power Authority and the Canal Corporation, a subsidiary of NYPA. The competition invited public input and the task force will follow a similar model, holding a series of public meetings to gather comment from local residents, business people and municipal officials.
Canal Corporation Director Brian Stratton said the canal system has played a pivotal role in the history of the state and continues to have an impact today, particularly on the 147 communities along the Erie Canal alone. Six of the cities that have received state Downtown Revitalization Initiative grants are canalside cities, and the waterway factors into the plans some of them are making.
“It’s a multifaceted economic engine, very important beyond tourism,” Stratton said. “It’s [been] seminal to our development, all of upstate New York and all of America.”
The Erie Canal provides drinking water, irrigation water and hydropower in addition to a place to move cargo or enjoy leisure time, he said. The task force and the upcoming 200th anniversary of completion of the original Erie Canal in 1825 provide an opportunity to re-imagine the canal’s role and impact.
“We’re not just looking to the past, we’re looking forward,” he said.
Stratton is a native and former mayor of Schenectady, which recently has seen one of the biggest canalside economic developments of the modern era: construction of Mohawk Harbor. The Rivers Casino & Resort Event Center at Mohawk Harbor will host the 2020 edition of the biennial NYS Canal Conference.
“I tell people in my hometown, ‘You should be very proud of what’s happening,’” he said.