CAPITAL REGION — The Erie Canal was built in the 1820s for barges carrying commercial cargo.
It will never see that use again, but the canals aren't going anywhere.
Now Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing a $300 million plan to “reimagine” the 339-mile stretch of waterway for modern uses over the next five years.
Big-ticket components designed to boost tourism in communities located along the route include rehabbing the damaged Guy Park Manor in Amsterdam as a “hospitality destination” and adding a walkway to an existing canal lock designed to link people to overnight destinations across the Mohawk River.
The sweeping proposal, introduced Monday as part of his 2020 state of the state agenda, also aims to bolster flood remediation efforts along the Mohawk River.
Cuomo called the effort a “bold and visionary plan” that will build on the success of the emerging multi-use Empire State Trail, increase upstate tourism, improve resilience and “ensure the economic sustainability of the waterway into the future.”
The governor will recommend the New York Power Authority Board, which oversees the Canal Corporation, approve $300 million over the next five years at the board's meeting later this month.
Cuomo is scheduled to formally reveal his state of the state on Wednesday in Albany.
If approved by NYPA, $65 million will be allocated this year for solutions designed to prevent the ice jams and flooding which have long plagued the Mohawk River Valley.
The governor appointed a panel last year, Reimagine Task Force, to come up with new ideas for the waterway’s future.
A sub-group was tasked with finding ways to prevent flooding caused by ice jams. Four of 10 potential interventions were ultimately recommended:
- Using specialized icebreakers to break up ice jams in problem areas.
- Modifying the Vischer Ferry Dam crest to better manage water flows and potentially flush out ice jams.
- Modifying the Mohawk River channel through dredging and filling to alleviate choke points that contribute to ice jam formation.
- Deploying an early monitoring and warning system that will better predict ice jam formation and flooding, providing communities and emergency managers more lead time to prepare for floods.
Each requires further analysis in order to zero in on more precise details and their combined impact, according to a new report released on Monday.
NYPA will work with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to study the large-scale infrastructure projects.
The proposal drew high remarks from localities along the waterway, including those that were severely affected by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
“This is important to help us mitigate any future floods in Glenville and throughout Schenectady County,” said Glenville Supervisor Chris Koetzle. “This is something I definitely support.”
Montgomery County Executive Matthew Ossenfort said the county has experienced countless floods and ice jams ranging from a “mild nuisance” to severe blockages.
“Any efforts on that front are appreciated,” he said.
And in Schenectady, the city is continuing to refine strategies to protect the flood-prone Stockade neighborhood.
Following an extensive research and community input phase, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has said it will allocate $7.5 million for flood mitigation solutions, which could include building berms and moving houses out of the flood plain.
Chronic flooding along the Mohawk River remains critical, said Mayor Gary McCarthy.
“Once again, I strongly thank Gov. Cuomo for his continued strong support on this issue for communities along the Erie Canal,” he said. “We look forward to working with Gov. Cuomo’s administration to advance flood mitigation initiatives, repurpose the canal and continue our waterfront development efforts.”
DEC announced in 2018 it would spend $500,000 to study flooding and ice jams along the 147-mile main channel of the Mohawk River to pinpoint high-risk areas and identify solutions.
The agency said on Monday the first phase of the project, which entailed gaining information from communities along the Mohawk River to identity high-risk areas for floods and ice jams, has been completed.
"These high risk areas will be further evaluated through additional field work and hydraulic modeling," said a spokesman. "Once finished, a draft report will be issued containing specific mitigation projects that can be implemented to further reduce flooding in these communities."
DEC is working closely with the Reimagine the Canals Task Force.
"Both of these initiatives are being fully integrated and coordinated to complement each other," the spokesman said.
Economic development along the Mohawk River Valley is the other component of the effort.
Officials hope additional investment designed to fund adaptive reuse of canal infrastructure — from waterfront recreation to redeveloping former industrial sites — will help some of the state’s most economically disadvantaged communities.
The initiative calls for $100 million of the initial investment be used to begin a fund to invest in communities located along the waterway, an effort state and local officials say builds on ongoing state investments across the region, including waterfront developments in Schenectady, Little Falls and Utica.
State officials said they drew inspiration from European destinations that view canals as part of their infrastructure and attempt to leverage those assets to attract visitors.
Roughly $25 million will be allocated immediately to a set of initial projects, including:
- Guy Park Manor transformation: The disused structure will be reborn as a hospitality destination, while a walkway constructed on the existing Erie Canal lock will provide access to additional overnight accommodation along the Empire State Trail on the opposite side of the river.
- Interactive dams: Movable dams, beginning with those in Amsterdam and Canajoharie, will celebrate the Erie’s Canal's heritage and its history as an engineering marvel via interactive and hydro-powered illuminations
Guy Park Manor has long faced an uncertain future, Ossenfort said.
“To see that as a key component of this package of proposals is fantastic,” he said. “I truly believe it is a destination, and it’s one of our greatest historic assets.” The historic building was badly damaged during Irene's flooding and has not been in use as a result.
Ossenfort also pointed at $6 million in state grants to help demolish parts of the former Beech-Nut factory in Canajoharie and Amsterdam’s $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative award.
“This will only help ongoing efforts to revitalize these communities,” he said.
Early projects flagged for funding elsewhere in the state include a loop connecting SUNY College at Brockport to the Empire State Trail.
Officials also aim to create a new whitewater destination at the north end of Cayuga Lake near Seneca Falls to increase eco-tourism, and transform a former industrial facility in Canastota in Madison County into a “new model for 21st century canalside living.”
The remaining $135 million would be allocated based on further recommendations by the Reimagine Task Force.
The effort also includes initiatives to restore wetlands, enhance irrigation, boost recreational fishing and combat invasive species.