NYCC still wants to sterilize Erie Canal embankments

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Almost five years to the day after the citizen group Stop the Canal Clearcut was founded, we find ourselves near the end of the legally required environmental review process we started fighting for in December 2017. The final draft of the New York State Canal Corporation’s Embankment Management Guidebook and the manual’s Generic Environmental Impact Statement were released late last month, and NYCC tells us they intend to move ahead with vegetation removal next fall and winter. 

Recent headlines have emphasized that the revised plan saves the trees, and that “clear cutting is off the table.” But one doesn’t have to dig deeply into the pages of documents released by the Canal Corporation to see that this is misleading. Shane Mahar, an NYCC spokesperson, helpfully summarized the agency’s goals in an interview with WXXI: “The trees that are on the embankments today should not be there.” And if you view their own PR website, you can see that turf grass lawn is the NYCC’s preferred aesthetic. In the revised plan, the process of converting the embankment from a natural landscape to a manicured industrial one just may take longer than they originally hoped. 

Ginny Maier

The Canal Corporation has not moderated its approach despite strong public opposition. Last summer, over 1,000 citizens submitted comments on the draft environmental impact statement. Nearly all listed reasons to preserve the natural vegetation—including shade, wildlife habitat, and climate protection—and pleaded for the development of a new plan that centers preservation of the natural environment. 

Instead of listening to the public outcry, the NYCC’s “concession” only allows for the potential of preserving some scattered trees. This option will be available only in areas of the canal that individual communities have designated as scenic. In reality, this seeming concession is an illusion—without the surrounding natural vegetation, any remaining isolated trees would be at risk of wind damage and removal. The ultimate result will be treeless embankments, because without surrounding seedlings or saplings, nothing will take the place of trees that are lost. 

As for the portions of the embankments that don’t meet the Canal Corporation’s “community thresholds,” the plan is to convert them to lawn without any opportunity to save even some of the trees.  

The Canal Corporation became a subsidiary of the New York Power Authority in 2017. Under this new regime, decades of flexible management that accommodated forest regrowth has been derided as “lack of maintenance.” This is despite the fact that in the history of the Erie Canal, there have been no emergencies or breaches resulting from natural vegetation. 

The NYCC’s novel policy of sterilized Erie Canal embankments is also not supported by state law. In 1992, recognizing that they needed to redefine a historic canal that no longer had value as commercial infrastructure, the legislature established the Canal Recreationway Commission. This commission’s purpose was to develop a statewide plan directing the evolution of the Erie Canal in order to maximize its recreational and scenic value. The plan’s vision of the recreationway is a 524-mile linear park that is a “greenway.” Faced with the choice to abandon this relic structure, legislators 30 years ago chose to honor its legacy, but also to imagine it as a new, more modern resource. The Canal Corporation’s new management plan severely undermines this vision.  

NYCC officials continue to insist that removing natural vegetation is the only safe option. From the beginning, our group of grassroots volunteers has been urging the Canal Corporation to reconsider this viewpoint, which resulted from redefining the canal embankments as industrial dams. Even if we accept their redefinition, NYCC engineers refuse to acknowledge the science that tells us that an intensive reconstruction of the embankments could create more risk than it theoretically mediates

While we have shared with them academic reviews and scientific studies on the subject of vegetation on dams and levees, the Canal Corporation has responded with fear mongering. They continue to reference deadly dam failures that had nothing to do with vegetation in their documents, and they use stories of Erie Canal breaches caused by construction activities as if they are warnings about the risk of leaving the embankments alone. When we remind them that the number one cause of death on the Erie Canal is drowning, and that trees along the embankments have demonstrably saved lives, they dismiss us, saying “we aren’t concerned about swimmers.” We see this indifference in the management manual, which contains no discussion of strategies to reduce the risk of drowning deaths.

For five long years, members of Stop the Canal Clearcut have used the opportunities afforded by the state’s environmental laws to fight for the state’s expressed vision of the Erie Canal—a linear park, a greenway, a place to recreate in natural beauty. Although we are just grassroots volunteers with no budget or staff, we have kept the Canal Corporation’s industrial vision at bay, keeping miles of the canal trail shady and beautiful. Our effort has also saved the state millions of dollars—NYCC’s Environmental Impact Statement estimates the initial cost of their maintenance program is, at minimum, $2 million to $4 million per mile of embankment. 

In these same five years, our members have written hundreds of letters and emails to the governor and our legislators asking them to fight for the Erie Canal greenway their predecessors imagined 30 years ago. Gov. Kathy Hochul and her representatives have never once responded. While local legislators have expressed support, they have not yet sought any legislative action that would realign the Canal Corporation with the vision of the state’s Recreationway Plan. 

If you want the natural character of the Erie Canal to be protected, please let the governor and your state legislators know that it is now time for our state elected leaders to step into the fight. Tell them that if they don’t, their legacy will be a canal that is an expensive eyesore. And that that would be a failure that their constituents will remember.

Ginny Maier is a resident of Fairport, co-founder of Stop the Canal Clear Cut, and a member of the Biology faculty at St. John Fisher College.

13 thoughts on “NYCC still wants to sterilize Erie Canal embankments

  1. The vegetation growing on the banks of the canal are weeds and should be removed. They impinge on the safety of the canal and the ability to view it.

  2. Sadly, once again, Ms Maier refuses to acknowledge the solitary fact that the entire program on embankments is centered on public safety.

    While she continues to deny the facts about dam science that the Canal Corporation has laid out in their latest Embankment Manual, these embankments sink further into disrepair.

    They are after all MAN MADE STRUCTURES that were used for commercial navigation, and like all srructures, they need maintenance, inspection and repair.

    But not in Ms Maiers world.

    She and her Facebook group have labeled the discussion about dam repair and public safety… “fear mongering”, and simply IGNORE any conversation about how the Erie Canal has become a public safety issue for New York State.

    And Ms Maier pedals her denialism on Social Media channels while many Erie Canal Neighbors, who live below these aging embankments, wonder if the next catastrophic dam breach on National News might happen in their own backyard.

    Go to the NYS Canal Integrity Website and read for yourself how badly the Canal System is leaking.

    This isn’t about trees or shade, it certainly is not about landscaping and beautification of the Erie Canal.

    It’s not about animal Habitat, unless those animals are the humans in danger from an aging, unsustainable NYS Canal System.

    It’s really about making the Erie Canal something it is not right now… that would be SAFE for the public living around it.

    The Dutch had it right, like most of Europe, they kmow that trees have a place, and it’s NOT growing on earthen Dams & Dikes that hold back water from flooding people & property.

    Go read the TRUTH about Erie Canal Embankments.

    Thank you for the time.
    Doug Kucmerowski
    Co-Founder: Erie Canal Neighbors Association

    • Just an after thought for ALL to consider, who may be reading Ms. Maier’s comments and think she may be “qualified” to speak on the topic of Invasive Vegetation growing along the canal, as she is in the Biology field, or that is what the Rochester Beacon claims in her Bio.

      Even though Canal Embankment Integrity work is about Earthen Dam Safety, not Saving the Trees, as some people think.

      Ms. Maier has taken a great liberty here, with her use of terms, stating that the Erie Canal Embankments will be STERILIZED with the work that is meant to improve their safety and “inspectability” for the Canal Corporation.

      As a Biology “expert” she must know what that term means.

      Here’s the definition according to the online Encyclopedia Britannica:

      Sterilization (biochemistry) – Sterilization, which is any process, physical or chemical, that destroys all forms of life, is used especially to destroy microorganisms, spores, and viruses. Precisely defined, sterilization is the complete destruction of all microorganisms by a suitable chemical agent or by heat, either wet steam…


      Did you read that part? Does Ms. Maier really BELIEVE that statement herself?

      That is entirely UNTRUE, and the New York Canal Corporation has NEVER stated that will be the result of the Embankment Integrity program.

      They are NOT destroying all life along the Erie Canal Embankments.

      In fact the EEIP Maintenance Manual, released recently by the NYS Canal Corporation, does specifically state where turf grass will be grown, where wildflower beds can be planted and when ornamental grasses and other barrier plants will be used and where THOSE plants will be grown.

      The only thing that will NOT be allowed to grow, is all termed “invasive vegetation”, and it’s made up of overgrown trees that do not belong on Earthen Dams, according to the Federal & State Laws. It also includes any and all invasive plant species like Japanese Knotweed and Amur Honeysuckle, they are NOT native, they ARE invasive and they PREVENT proper dam inspection and identification of embankment safety issues.

      No folks, that choice of words being used by Ms. Maier is simply the telltale sign of a frustrated canal trail user, who is still in denial about the REAL condition of the Erie Canal, and wants to sensationalize this Canal Maintenance Program into something “evil”.

      Using the word Sterilization is just Ms. Maier fanning the flames of her social media “protest group” that she labels as grassroots, yet they oppose the grass being planted that will restore canal embankments to their original state and original safety rating levels as they will be “just like new”.

      Perhaps Ms. Maier should brush up on here terms & definitions before she passes along anymore mis-information to her social media group, or the community she lives in.

      As someone in the Biology field she may want to start with the CDC Website, which defines the difference between Sterilization, Disinfection and General Cleaning.

      If she actually read this website then she might tell her group (more accurately) that the ONLY thing happening to Erie Canal Embankment is a CLEANING of debris and other organic/inorganic material that is causing all of the safety issues described by the Canal Corporation’s Embankment Handbook.

      But that wouldn’t get nearly as much attention as using the word STERILIZATION…

      Would it?

      And it wouldn’t serve Ms. Maier’s hidden agenda here…. would it?

  3. Excellent article and update on the status of NYCC’s implementation plan/program.

    As a licensed Landscape Architect in the State of NY,I always approached design oriented problem-solving using a balanced perspective between environmental,social,and economic considerations…doesn’t seem as though this “one size fits all” approach considers context and diversity of factors required to create a true natural heritage corridor that we can continue to cherish…let’s be smart about decisions that will be transformational for the future of this incredible resource and asset of the ‘People of the State of New York”!

    Thank you Ginny for your and your fellow advocates passion in continuing to bring light to this important issue!

    • Balance approach….your words. Balance the science with the looks. There is a place for trees and there is a danger in having them. Again…..balance. That said NYS has a history of being out of balance and allowing politics to rule the day. That’s why it’s called the U-haul state. Semper Fi.

  4. Ginny,

    Could you please come and speak to our neighborhood this spring?

    We are so totally against the “manicured” look along the Canal . . . keep the trees and the habitat! What more can we do to save the natural environment, shade and homes for our natural wildlife?

    I will contact Sen. Brouke and Assemblywoman Lunsford and encourage my neighbors to do the same.

    Your being here with a visual presentation would motivate a lot of people!

    Please let me know if we can arrange a presentation to protect the trees.

    With all good holiday wishes,
    Mary Lynn Vickers

    • Ms Vickers,

      You should check your facts before you invite someone to your neighborhood to spread Erie Canal misinformation, especially when that misinformation may put the public at risk of a potential flood event.'truth'-while-ignoring-all-ea/?message=2319

      Ms Maier, Ms. Agte, and their Facebook group have been informed DIRECTLY by many within NYS Government, that the safety and well-being of both the public AND the NYS Canal System, are involved here.

      It is not about a “natural habitat” for wildlife or about trees & shade. The Erie Canal Embankments are man-made earth dams, and as such DO have Laws, Rules and NY Regulations that govern them.

      All set by the NYS Dept of Environmental Conservation & Protection. They protect both nature for “mankind” and also mankind for the potential Rath of nature.

      Uninspected, unmanaged, and unsafe Erie Canal embankments have been identified. The people who MANAGE them for NY State sat they are in immediate need of repair.

      What authority do you or Ms Maier have to stop it?

      What science & facts can you present that says those who know the canal system BEST, are all wrong?

      Have you spent anytime at all doing RESEARCH on the state of the Canal System using the tools provided by NYS on their website?

      Or are you just going to take the word of someone who’s ignoring the facts on a social media website and say “that’s OK with you” if they are dead wrong on public safety?

      There are two sides to this discussion, it would be to your benefit to make sure you have read and understand BOTH.

      Feel free to reach out… anyone who wants to understand Earthen Dam facts vs Facebook fiction.

  5. Let me respond with some common sense and scientific fact. I was brought up in The Netherlands. Came here at age 12 but have been back multiple times to see family. I would say that the Dutch have mastered the science of building dikes. Since a large section of land in below sea level, dikes are paramount in keeping the water level under control. There are zero trees, growth in these dikes. I will leave it up the the reader as to why, but trust me, it is done for a reason. If the water is flush with the land level, no problem. If the land level is below the water level (as in Bushnell’s Basin) there is a dike that holds back the water. Trees and the like are a danger to the integrity of any dam. Look at the pictures from Holland and, if still in doubt, contact the experts in keeping water at bay, the Dutch.

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