A Man, No Plan, A Canal

The Glens Falls Feeder Canal, source of spiny water flea migration into the Champlain Canal

Yesterday the New York State Canal Corporation issued the following statement: “The Canal Corporation wants to assure travelers, canal-related businesses and local residents that there is no plan to shut down the Champlain Canal.”

The obscure state agency could have left it at, “There is no plan.”

The statement came in response to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy’s call for a possible emergency closure and draining of a lock on the Champlain Canal, which connects Lake Champlain to the Hudson River. Spiny water flea was discovered in the canal this summer. There really is no effective way to control the invasive krill, which depletes food supplies for fish. Scientists say the organism will reach Lake Champlain unless a physical barrier is put in place.

It might sound as if Vermont is bullying New York, but this is an emergency of New York’s own making. Former Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords in 2007 authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to study the feasibility of various invasive-species control methods on the Champlain Canal [clarfication: Jeffords wrote the relevant provision in 2006 when he was on the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public works; the bill was passed in early 2007, after Jeffords had retired]. His colleague Senator Leahy has since made federal funding available.

“Money that I have directed to this purpose through both the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has gone unspent for years—I repeat—for YEARS [capital letters sic]—while the New York Canal Corporation has shown no sustained interest in addressing the problem,” Senator Leahy said yesterday at a press conference on the shore of Lake Champlain. “There have been occasional meetings, and a letter or two, but no real progress.”

The canal is the sole jurisdiction of New York State but has inundated Lake Champlain with invasive species that cost other entities more than $500,000 annually to manage—those like water chestnut and sea lamprey that can be managed. Other species, like zebra mussel, are beyond control. Lake Champlain is bordered by Vermont, Quebec and New York State’s Adirondack Park.

The last known communication from the New York State Canal Corporation on the subject was a 2009 letter from former commissioner Carmella Mantello to the Army Corps, urging it to initiate a barrier feasibility study. Otherwise, even though it owns the canal, the Canal Corporation has punted on the issue, hinting that it’s up to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to take leadership.

The Army Corps reported in 2011 it was awaiting further funding, but if Senator Leahy now says that money for a study is there, then it’s a safe bet that the money is there.

The Canal Corporation’s statement yesterday appears to be a bizarre and alarmist step backwards. It focused on the undeniable economic importance of the Champlain Canal as a recreational boat pathway but did not acknowledge a four-year-old discussion by scientists and canal stakeholders about boat lifts that could “close” the canal to invasive species without closing it to vessels. Nor did it factor the expense of invasive species against the revenues of recreational boating (2010 estimate 1,700 “lock-throughs” annually).

A new complication might be barge traffic. The canal was established in 1823 to transport goods between the St. Lawrence River and New York City. Commercial shipping gradually declined, and in most years it’s now negligible. Last year, however, 6,000 tons of goods were barged through. The Canal Corporation was unable to say what kind of cargo by press time, but it’s likely it was material for construction of the bridge from Crown Point, NY, to Addison, VT, demonstrating the continued value of the canal for heavy transport. It’s unclear if a boat lift could accommodate commercial cargo.

If an Army Corps of Engineers study were under way or complete, there might be answers to these questions. Vermont, New York and Quebec could take informed action for the long term. As it is, bureaucratic inaction has narrowed options for the short term, and the Canal Corporation should not be so dismissive of an emergency closure. It’s probably too late to keep spiny water flea out of Lake Champlain. But there might yet be time to stop hydrilla, round goby and even Asian carp.

All fingers point to the Canal Corporation as the agency with the jurisdiction to take action, but the Canal Corporation continues to react as if the issue were beyond its control. Dan Weiller, director of public affairs, e-mailed this additional statement today: “The Canal Corporation recognizes the seriousness of the problem, but has been put in an untenable situation when the only solution is said to be the closure of one of our four major inland waterways, with the resultant disruption of commerce and devastation of many small businesses. There needs to be a menu of alternatives to control a problem that defies simple solutions.”

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