When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo makes his State of the State address on Wednesday, one of his proposals will be a $300 million plan to reimagine the Erie Canal by creating recreational activities to boost tourism, mitigating flooding, enhancing irrigation and recreational fishing and restoring wetlands.
Cuomo will be recommending the New York Power Authority Board, which now oversees the Canal Corp. as a subsidiary, approve the $300 million investment over the next five years at the board's January meeting.
Locally, the plan would establish an irrigation district in Western New York where canal water can be utilized during periods of low rainfall. In addition, canal water would be used to enhance fish habitats and extend the fall fishing season in Lake Ontario tributaries as well as expand public fishing access along key streams in Niagara County.
"When the Erie Canal was created in the 19th century it set the state and the nation on a path to prosperity, and this year we will repurpose the canal to fit our state's 21st century needs," Cuomo said in a release. "This bold and visionary plan to transform this historic waterway will build on the success of the Empire State Trail, grow tourism across Upstate New York, improve resilience of today's Canal communities and ensure the economic sustainability of the waterway into the future."
A first phase of funding will start this year that will have two parts: a $100 million economic development fund to invest in communities along the canal and a separate $65 million investment in solutions that will help prevent ice jams and related flooding in the Schenectady area.
The remaining $135 million of the plan's funding will subsequently be allocated to research recommended by the Reimagine Task Force, as well as to solutions related to flood mitigation, invasive species prevention and ecosystem restoration.
Improved irrigation for farmers
The plan includes establishment of an irrigation district in Western New York to enhance drought resiliency by ensuring that farmers in those counties have reliable access to water during the critical summer growing season.
To ensure water is available during periods of low rainfall, canal outflow infrastructure will be modernized as part of a "smart water management system" that can better respond to changing weather conditions.
A new grant program operated by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets will underpin additional private-sector investment in irrigation infrastructure.
World-Class fishing and restored wetlands
To create world-class fishing in Western New York, the new plan recommends managing water releases from the canal to enhance fish habitat, improve angling opportunities, and extend the fall fishing season in Lake Ontario tributaries.
It also includes funding to expand public fishing access along key streams in Orleans, Monroe and Niagara counties.
In addition, it identifies a program to divert canal water to restore and re-nourish wetlands in Central New York that were compromised a century ago by the canal's construction. This will allow areas in close proximity to the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, a migratory stopover for more than 1 million birds each year, to be significantly enhanced to further attract naturalists, locals, and visitors from throughout the region and beyond.
New Economic Development Fund highlights:
• Connecting Communities: The "Brockport Loop" project in Monroe County will connect SUNY College at Brockport to the Empire State Trailand the village of Brockport through the transformation of a canal guard-gate into a pedestrian bridge and overlook, with a supporting grant of $2 million from the Ralph Wilson Foundation.
• Celebrating "Iconic Infrastructure": Interactive, hydro-powered illumination of Canal "movable dams" — initially in Amsterdam and Canajoharie in the Mohawk River valley — will celebrate the Canal's heritage and its history as an engineering marvel.
• Expanding Water Recreation: A new whitewater destination, at the north end of Cayuga Lake near Seneca Falls, will rely on existing water control infrastructure to construct an active water sports course adjacent to the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, to increase eco-tourism and sport visitors to the region.
• Adapting Industrial Property for New Uses: Winner of the Reimagine the Canals competition, a canalside pocket neighborhood, will be developed by Madison County in Central New York at a former industrial property in Canastota along the Old Erie Canal — demonstrating a new model for 21st century canalside living.
• Developing Destination Accommodations: The historic Guy Park Manor, on the Mohawk River in Amsterdam, will be reborn as a hospitality destination and a pedestrian bridge constructed across the already-existing canal lock will provide access to additional overnight accommodation along the Empire State Trail on the opposite side of the river.
There are 1.6 million trips taken annually on the Erie Canal Trailway, the former towpath used by mules and horses to pull barges in the canals' early days. The Trailway is part of Governor Cuomo's Empire State Trail, which at 750 miles will be the largest state multi-use trail network when completed in late 2020. Governor DeWitt Clinton began work on the original Erie Canal on July 4, 1817.