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PODCAST: The Erie Canal: Reimagining Two Centuries of History


Avery Ken CRM

Ken Avery, PE

Practice Leader - Water Resources

Bergmann Location

Rochester, NY
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In the early-to-mid-1800's, the Erie Canal system had a rich history of supporting the movement of goods and people across New York State, and with the onset of the railroads and later, highways, the Canal was relegated from primarily a commercial waterway to a recreational waterway.

Podcast Summary

In May 2019, Governor Cuomo announced a sweeping initiative to examine how the Erie Canal system could be reimagined for the 21st century. Ken Avery, PE, CFM, D. WRE, Bergmann’s Water and Environmental Practice Leader, joins us to share history of the evolution of the Erie Canal, and how he and the team at Bergmann are contributing to important efforts to ensure the viability of the system for New York residents and visitors for years to come.

Read New York State's full Reimagine the Canals Task Force Report here.

Podcast Transcript

This podcast was transcribed by using AI technology and may contain grammatical or spelling errors.

Stacy Lake Hello, everyone. Welcome to insights by Bergmann, a podcast that provides timely commentary from subject matter experts on topics and trends related to our built environment. I'm today's host, Stacy Lake and with me is one of the foremost experts on New York State's waterways Ken Avery, he's the practice leader for Bergman's Water Resources Group. Thanks for joining us, Ken.

Ken Avery It's great to have the opportunity to share with you today about the past, present and future of the New York State canal system.

Stacy Lake Yes, so that's exactly what we're going to be talking about today. I know that I find this a really interesting topic, the Erie Canal. And it's what a lot of people call the most important waterway in New York State. And you are a waterway expert. You've got a really impressive background in water resources and environmental engineering with 40 plus years in the field and 35 here at Bergman with a resume that spans projects from river hydraulics to ecosystem restoration, flood control dams and levees. The list really goes on and on. A large number of projects in your resume are in some way related to the Erie Canal. Ken So you clearly have a passion for this waterway. Why is that? What sparked your interest in the Erie Canal?

Ken Avery Well, I grew up in Rochester. I've lived in New York State my entire life, went to college in New York State. And I've always enjoyed New York State in American history, similar to my dad. And I'm fascinated by how the early canal engineers were able to use the materials and the engineering practices they had, which were nothing compared to what we have to work with today to build the canal system. You know, what did they have they had timber, they had quarried rock, they had cement and wrought iron to build the original Erie Canal. And the numerous feeders feeder canals. If you want a good read a really good read is Peter Bernstein's. The wedding of the waters, the Erie Canal. And the making of a great nation is a really great book on the Erie Canal and the history and how they really accomplish this. In 1817, DeWitt Clinton, who was a governor at that time, he petitioned the legislature for $7 million in bonds to build this thing. And when it was built, it allowed it allowed, for example, if you if it cost $100, to ship grain from Western New York, which was a breadbasket at the time, right? So our city, Rochester, breadbasket of the nation at the time, if it costs $100, to ship to New York City, that cost dropped to $10. Wow. And, and those bonds were paid off within 10 years. So I've been blessed, since the early 1990s, to be involved in a number of different endeavors. With the New York State canal system. Well, it sounds like your interest really spans all aspects of it. It's the history. It's the economics of it. It's the technical details of it. And, and it's interesting to hear you talk about, you know, what it was back then, and what it's become today, because it's really evolved with the needs of society and the state. The world today, this is a 524 mile waterway that consists of four interconnected canals, the Erie, the Cayuga, and Seneca, the Oswego and the Champlain

Stacy Lake That's really interesting. I don't know if a lot of people understand that, you know, you might be familiar with just one aspect of it. But really, when it was built, it's all these interconnected systems. And I know that we had a really big anniversary in 2018. It was keep me honest here, I think it was the 100th anniversary of the barge canal system. Why, why is that significant?

Ken Avery So the canal system to start with in 1825 was a four foot deep canal, a ditch essentially. In fact, the first 56 miles of it were built without any locks and a very level flat area between Rome and Syracuse. But over the years, there were some expansions to the canal in the 1850s. It was deep into seven foot, and that allowed heavier tonnage to be shipped Well, in in 1918, which seems like it should have been at the end of the canal building era. The railroads were very powerful at the time and the thought was that if we increased the tonnage on the canal and using the materials we have today, which at that time was they had steel which allowed the lifts for locks, which used to be no more than maybe 10 feet to go to 25 feet, because you could build the locks of this gates instead of timber, you could build the gates of the locks with steel, which is a much stronger material. So so that expansion was the first to use large steel structures we had one of those structures is the Court Street dam here in Rochester, New York. So the idea was that the canal system, the barge canal system could be a competitor to the railroads. And as late as the 1960s, that canal system was shipping over 3 million tons annually. The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway system in 1959, however, allowed ocean going ships to come into the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway project, and that really killed off most of the commercial shipping on the canal. And the annual tonnage dwindled down to something like 50,000 tonnes since then. And today, it's primarily used as a recreational waterway for pleasure boats, and of course, the Erie Canal Trail, which is almost completed, runs parallel and the long side of it for most of its length.

Stacy Lake Yeah. And that's, you know, it's interesting, because you mentioned the recreational uses, are there still commercial uses today in any aspects? Yeah. Because I know it's evolved quite a bit.

Ken Avery And there's been some surprising uses and some good opportunities as well.First of all, as we go see of us we go has a good size port. And that's right at the end of the s we go canal right on Lake Ontario. On General Electric has a very large facility on the Erie Canal, the canal alized section of the Mohawk River between loc seven and eight. And you probably heard about a few years ago, Genesee brewery here in Rochester had a number of beer tanks shipped from China, yes, came through the Erie Canal system. And then, since 2016, the Erie Canal system, and specifically the Champlain canal, has been used to ship granite aggregate, from up north,down Champlain canal, to the Hudson River to New York City where it's used to manufacture concrete. So In very recent years, we've actually had an increase from 50,000 to about 500,000 tons annually.

Stacy Lake Oh, that's really interesting. So it's being used a little bit more for commercial purposes. So it's been sort of like this reverse bell curve with that trend. So you know, you talk about the this evolution of the system and back in 1918, it was a kind of a restructuring or expansion. There's certainly been additions along the way, what is the condition of the infrastructure? Like, I know, this is your area of expertise. It's 100 year system. So what what are we looking at?

Ken Avery Yeah, well, the, although they were able to use concrete and steel rather than masonry and timber, like the very early canal, the practices of construction, quality control, how concrete was made, was just not as good as it's made today.

Stacy Lake You're talking back in 100 years ago, even years ago.

Ken Avery If you go along the west river wall and Rochester, you'll see that the West river wall is is there's sections called monoliths and these are cast concrete castings in in maybe 40 foot lengths, but you'll you'll see one monolith, that looks pretty good, the condition of it. And then the next one, right next to it is has an incredible amount of deterioration. And if you look at the concrete, you can tell that, that it's not broken through the aggregate, but around the aggregate. That's an indication of poor quality. And I just think that the practices were were not as good as they are today. The other aspect of this is that a waterway infrastructure is very expensive to rehab. And most of the rehabs when they're done are very extensive. We've been involved in a couple of these. The unica harbor dam, which is the dam that regulates levels in Utica harbor. Er, and is crosses the Mohawk river that rehabilitation in a few years ago was $10 million. And more recently, Bergman did a major design for rehabilitation of lock, oh seven Oswego lock seven. And that was 30 million. So the cost to repair these structures is significant. And the funding has been very inconsistent. When the Canal Corporation which actually used to be under public, New York State Public Works Department was shifted, the New York State D O T, was shifted to New York state thruway. And at that time, your thruway tolls were being used to pay for canal relay.

Stacy Lake Oh, that's very interesting. So where does it live today?

Ken Avery Well, today, it's been taken over by night by New York Power Authority. And the New York Power Authority has a better, much better funding source, because they sell power. And they sell a lot of power. So the corporation is being much better funded today. And they're actually doing things that they couldn't even think about five years ago. And those kinds of things that they're doing, will help to improve the long term viability of the canal, and will certainly improve the safety of that canal system. For for people who live downstream of it.

Stacy Lake Which I know is a big a big focus of a lot of the work that you're done with the team. And you know, this kind of brings us to a really big topic that we definitely wanted to hit on today, the reimagine the Erie Canal initiative. Can you tell us a little bit about that and about your and Bergman's involvement?

Ken Avery Sure. This was it was announced by Governor Cuomo in May of 2019. And it's really a sweeping initiative to see how the canal system can be reimagined for the 21st century. And therefore, thereby responding to an evolving society, environmental issues and people's interest in, in recreation, and in, in other things than just commerce. Sure. And so, you can go to the there's a website for reimagine the Erie Canal,

Stacy Lake which we'll put on our podcast website, I think that would be helpful for our listeners. Absolutely.

Ken Avery But the five stated objectives are to improve the quality of life for New Yorkers, to enhance economic development along the canal corridor, to find new opportunities to enhance recreation and tourism, to assess how the Erie Canal can help mitigate impacts from flooding and ice jams. And then lastly, to identify opportunities for using Erie Canal infrastructure to expand irrigation for the western New York farms.

Stacy Lake So you're right, it is a sweeping initiative. There's a lot that it's touching on and it sounds like they're really mapping out the plan for what the canal system needs to be now and into the immediate future. That's right.

Ken Avery Yeah. And in January of this year, the task force published a report.

Stacy Lake And as Ken is holding up for me right now, it is a very sizable report. I think it's public too. So we'll put a link to that as well on our website for the for the listeners,

Ken Avery and provides a lot of the detail for the initiatives that were looked at, but because of our long term, past involvement with the canal system, the people, the consultant that was recommended to conduct the reimagined study was we were referred to them and they graciously have taken Assad as a really big player in this. So, we assisted them in a lot of different ways. primarily looking at flood mitigation on the Mohawk river. So this is, you know, between Schenectady and Herkimer. And through you to cut towards Delta dam, we provided a lot of hydraulic evaluations and flood damage evaluations for that entire quarter, both in terms of the potential flood damage reduction and in flood insurance premium reductions that could be achieved simply by operating the canal system in a way where the movable dams gates would be opened in advance of a flood event, and to release the water

Ken Avery these water and to create a bigger waterway that would not trap debris during these flood events, which heretofore had happened significantly in 2006 2013 2011. All three of those were major flood events where the movable dam gates were not fully removed from the water, causing a lot of debris to get trapped into and even causing flood levels to be greater than what they normally would be because of the snagging of debris. And even though the work of the the taskforce report was done in January, we've continued to assist with this whole aspect of flood damage reduction in the Mohawk River Basin. And we'll be continuing on that throughout the rest of this year. And hopefully in the next year. Another aspect that we helped out with is managing water in the 60 mile pool between Rochester and Lockport. It might be hard to believe this, but there's 64 miles between a lakh 33, which is actually in Brighton and lakh 34, which is in Lockport level pool of water. And for that that whole water body is now being considered as as a means to release water for two reasons. One is to provide for irrigation to farmers and farms nearby. It's It's a well known fact that you can grow higher value crops if you have irrigation at your disposal. And they're looking at going into irrigation in a bigger way than they already do. By using the canal system more than they do today to draw in water from the Niagara River, which is actually where the canal is fed in the western section. The other aspect is because there's a bunch of structures along the 60 mile pool, they're called waste gates. You can actually regulate the water by operating the Gates says that you can let water out here you can let it out there you can make gate adjustments for irrigation. But another idea has been to use the gate adjustments in the fall season as to attract fish from Lake Ontario up some of the big tributaries Oh, interesting.

Stacy Lake So to promote sport fishing and yeah,

Ken Avery and such as Oak Orchard Creek, Johnson Creek 18 Mile Creek, these are pretty good sized streams that discharge into Lake Ontario. And they're really loved by fishermen. But the idea of providing our water actually serves to attract fish very similar to like a fish ladder. When you build the fish ladder, you have what's called the traction flow flowing through the fish water or through the through the fish way. And that water is it flows through attracts the fish to come up the fish way

Stacy Lake I think what's so interesting about listening to you talk about this is the interconnectivity amongst all the waterways here in upstate New York. You know, in my past, I've learned a lot about how lucky we are here in New York to have such ample water supplies, and to listen to how interconnected all the tributaries that canal system, the Great Lakes all the way out to the ocean, how connected they are is really impressive.

Ken Avery So we continue to be involved in a few other aspects of this. Some Whitewater, to Whitewater facilities are being looked at in a couple of different locations on the canal system. And there will be some additional endeavors and hope in the near future that I'm that aren't quite ready to be talked about. But

Stacy Lake we'll have you back so you can share the details when you're able to

Ken Avery That's right. But it's been a wonderful opportunity to use our experience on the canal system in a new way really, and in a way that seeks to benefit New York State residents in a way that the canal has never until now is never thought to be possible. Yeah help in such ways.

Stacy Lake When you think about all these opportunities, you think about the goals and the plan and everything. What are you personally most excited about?

Ken Avery Well, I have to go back to when the head that we have Ah, the canal competition. It was open to anybody at any companies to submit ideas. In fact, Bergman is a firm submitted three ideas.

Stacy Lake And this was to help map out the taskforce plan. Right. Okay, right.

Ken Avery And what was interesting is though, the one that I chose was flood damage reduction. And I had the idea that from a few projects that we had worked on, including the moveable dams and including for some of the work we had done in the West river wall in Rochester, the idea that the canal couldn't be better used to reduce flooding. The The interesting thing and looking at it in hindsight, is that, as I look back on my proposal for that, I was not thinking big enough, I was not thinking the way that the evaluation committee was thinking. And yet, even though my proposal didn't get accepted as such, flood damage reduction has become a big part of this aspect. And I'm, and my team are a big part of implementing it. So even though we didn't win the competition, per se, we've been able to be involved in supporting this great initiative. And so I guess I would say that the the flood damage reduction aspect of it, which is come back in a really wonderful way, to us here at Bergman is something I'm very excited about. Yeah,

Stacy Lake it sounds like it'll, it'll bring a lot of positives to the community and to people that live and work and have land along the canal system. Yeah, well, and I get to see you and your team on a fairly regular basis. I know how passionate you all are about the canal and just making the waterways here in New York and all of the states that we serve as the best they can possibly be. So it's really exciting. Ken, is there anything else that you'd like to share with us today before we sign off here?

Ken Avery Well, I just appreciate being able to share with you and others about the canal system that I've taken a great interest in and which the people here at Bergman have done such a wonderful job of supporting in the past. And in a new way going forward. We all look to continue to support the canal and these fresh in new initiatives for the benefit of all people across New York state.

Stacy Lake That's great. Well, we'll definitely stay in touch with you and your team. And we'll hopefully get some updates along the way here. Ken, thank you again, this has been fantastic. To our listeners. Thank you for joining us on this episode of Insights by Bergmann. We have a lot more exciting topics coming up in the near future. So please stay tuned. And just a reminder that this and all of our podcast episodes can be found at or on your favorite streaming channels including Spotify, Apple, podcasts, Stitcher and many, many more. Until next time, I'm Stacy Lake with Insights by Bergmann.