“The New York State Canal Embankment Dams are UNSAFE!”
That’s what neighbors living along the Barge Canal in western New York were told back in late 2017.
The embankments that line the canals on both sides of the waterway at times, were built about 100 year ago and never properly maintained. Heavy, dense, woody vegetation had taken over the earthen dams that line about 125 miles of the New York State canal system making proper inspections of the embankments almost impossible. The entire system had reached a critical point, and something had to be done according to a 2014 report on the Canal System by the New York State Comptroller, it was fast becoming a public safety issue that NY State could not afford.
At the heart of the problem was the canal’s earthen embankments, or Dams as most people call them. Of course these were “old” dams, and none of them were being tracked by New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
The NYSDEC, who regulates dams, creates guidelines for new dam construction, and also INSURES that the dams on the NY State Dam Inventory & Registry get inspected and maintained on a regular basis.
It appears that the Barge Canal pre-dates the NYS DEC so when it came to adding canal dams to the Registry, the governing bodies decided to just “grandfather” these miles & miles of dams into NY, without adding them to the list.
No wonder the Canal Dams have become so bad over time, there was ZERO external oversight by any other New York State entity than whoever happen to own the Canal or the Canal Corporation at the time.
So now the NYS Canal Corporation is undertaking a PROGRAM to fix their DAM safety issues. You may have heard about it, called the Earthen Embankment Integrity Program or EEIP for short.
And the Canal Corporation has just released its Generic Environmental Impact Statement, in draft form (dGEIS), asking for suggestions from the general public on what could be added, improved, or clarified. This is all part of their State Environmental Quality Review or SEQR paperwork, which is required for all major programs or projects that disturb the earth in any way.
So this post will serve as some “Public Input” for the NY Canal Corporation on their Environmental Impact Guide.
It’s about two words, Assurance & Insurance.
The Canal Corporation, working with Bergmann Engineering Services, has taken a good approach to the issue of dam safety along the Canalway system. It’s Safety First, and Foremost. If you read their website on the EEIP program you will see they have covered everything well, maps, images of before & after, they have a plan to CLEAR all the embankments eventually, and they are starting with those that have the highest risk to people & property.
Their draft GEIS Statement identified 15 areas of concern, along SEQR categories for this type of study. I decided to look up the word Dam, just to see if the issue with these canal dams NOT being on the NYS Dam Registry was going to be resolved…that is the INSURANCE to the PUBLIC that this type of problem won’t happen again.
Sadly, there is NO MENTION of these new Dams that are going to be cleared off EVER getting into the NY State Dam Registry. The word Dam was used only 6 times, and nothing about what happens after the miles of dams are cleared. There is an assurance that clearing will be done, no insurance that it just won’t revert back to the mess we have now.
So I went to the New York State DEC website as the draft GEIS mentioned a NYS Dam Guideline that would be followed. I opened that and much to my surprise a 30 year old document Dam Construction techniques was offered. From my understanding these older guidelines have been replaced by new FEDERAL Dam Safety Guidelines as recently as 4 years ago. One has to ask themselves why anyone thought using 30 year old guides was acceptable.
It is key to note that Section 9 of this older guide does have a very short, and precise guideline on Earth Dams…and it says it all… No Trees, Just Grass, end of statement.
Still I had to check into the NYS Dam Registry more, there are links off the NY DEC website and they open up two forms of the Dam Registry. One runs on Google Earth, the other is a new one that is even better than the original.
I concentrated my search to the Barge Canal Basin… following it from Fairport to Lockport. I was just curious if any EARTHEN DAMS that belonged to the NYS Canal had been registered. It was amazing how many dams showed up, but the Canal Corporation has labeled then “waste weirs”. I have compiled a list so you can see the Concrete Canal Dam nearest you, there were almost no earthen dams mentioned, even though the last Canal Embankment project cleared off 40 different earthen dams over a 27 mile stretch from Lockport to Brockport in 2018-19.
One item to note… almost 100% of these CONCRETE structures have No Safety Rating because these dams haven’t been inspected to rate.
It’s looking like the entire canal dam system was never properly inspected, maintained, or even registered with the local DEC who runs the State Dam Registry.
Very few, if any, EARTHEN EMBANKMENT DAMS along the New York Barge Canal have been identified and registered with the New York State DEC and State Dam Registry