As co-founder of the Erie Canal Neighbors Association, I must respond to Ginny Maier’s June 21 article (“Trees belong on the Erie Canal”).
It’s important to understand that only some sections of the Erie Canal Trail are on raised earthen embankment dams. At these points, the prime objective is to allow vehicular traffic to inspect, maintain and rapidly repair the embankment in the event of a breach. The use by pedestrians and bikers will always be secondary to that aim.
Public safety first, scenic charm second—always.
Safety is paramount to those living under these dams. The prime reason? These are high-hazard dams, and inspections are deemed impossible to complete because of excessive vegetative growth (see Paul C. Rizzo Engineering’s inspection reports). The New York Power Authority is simply trying to comply with the law.
Currently, maintenance is impossible. See this video from the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
The NYPA Embankment Remediation Program is designed to restore the badly constructed, 100-year-old dams to a safe condition as per Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers specifications, which call for making the slope more gentle to prevent slides, fill gouges, eliminate rodent burrows, and remove root-balls that can pipe water and cause a breach. To do this, all the vegetation has to be removed, as the Canal Corp. has explained. (For more details, see this Canal Corp. informational video.)
The large percentage of trees along the canal trail are cottonwoods, all at end of life and weak-limbed. Crashing branches are commonplace, another huge safety problem. Look up the next time you are walking along the trail and imagine the injury if one of these large, overhanging limbs fell.
The ERP program is planting low-maintenance vegetation like grass and ground-covering flowering plants, to ensure that inspections can be easily carried out using walkers and drones. The Canal Corp. has proven in Brockport and Orleans county that they can produce a viable, effective and pleasant trail on a dam, while maintaining the complete safety of residents. Off the dams, there are also new trails that will be a huge improvement, especially for bikers. In the end we need safe dams, which give us safe trails.
Perinton is designated a Trail Town USA, so there are plenty of other trails available that are NOT on earthen embankment dams, so if visitors want shade and trees, they should plan to use these areas, rather than the Erie Canal Trail.
Again, the emphasis must be safety as thousands of people currently live under the threat of a dam breach along the Erie Canal. It is unreasonable for people who do not live under this threat to be pressuring against other folks’ safety. They really have no skin in the game.
A major problem with the evidence presented by those opposing the ERP work is that they are using documentation provided by experts, but their information is regarding levees, and not earthen embankment dams. The difference is profound! EEDs hold back water permanently; levees only contain water in time of flood.
There is tremendous pressure from water held back by an EED when filled.
The opposition group, led by Ginny Maier, engaged a hydrology expert, Dave Rosgen, to confirm that trees were beneficial on levees, which he did. When I confronted Rosgen and explained that the group were discussing EEDs on the Erie Canal, he immediately recanted his statement, writing: “It is my opinion that in this matter, the trees present a high risk related to mass wasting processes due to the saturation of fill embankments and water stages that are raised higher than the surrounding original floodplains.”
In layman’s terms, trees on dams are a high-risk danger to those living below.
The three towns of Brighton, Pittsford and Perinton seem to have ignored the fact they have allowed buildings to be constructed in a dam hazard zone (see this Association of State Dam Safety Officials explanation) for far too many years. Perhaps this is why they’d prefer to regard these dams as parks and trails? There is no emergency action plan, in the event of a breach, so there is no way to set the wheels in motion for rescue of victims etc.
Vigilance must be rigorous, and any romantic notions of trees, shade and so on must be set aside on these currently badly maintained, potential killer dams. We should all be supporting the Canal Embankment Rehabilitation Program and welcome the fact that the new owner of the Erie Canal—the Power Authority—takes the safety of the public very seriously. It’s been a long time coming, and isn’t that hard to see, with open eyes.
Michael Caswell is co-founder of the Erie Canal Neighbors Association.