State releases new guidelines for clearing trees, shrubs from Erie Canal embankments
Work to clear trees and other overgrowth along the embankments of the Erie Canal could resume in earnest this time next year.
State officials say their new maintenance plan will be more community focused and tailored to the location. An earlier, top-down approach resulted in clear-cutting large swaths of the canal embankments around Brockport and Albion. That angered residents and was halted by a court order.
“Clear cutting is off the table,” said Shane Mahar with the New York State Canal Corp. “It is not part of this program, it has been ruled out as a viable alternative.”
Rather than tackling large swaths of the canal bed, maintenance will proceed project by project, repairing leaks, or what they call “seeps.” There are 300 seeps of varying significance along the 130 miles of earthen embankments.
“As we actively monitor them, we've got our engineers and our consultants ... designing repair projects to go in and mitigate those seeps,” Mahar said. “And to slow and stop those from happening."
All projects would require notifying adjacent property owners and the local municipality.
For projects in a park or other area of local interest, the state will bring in an arborist and landscape architect, provide alternative options, and establish a community task force. If none of the state proposals are accepted, a community can opt to maintain all mature trees but only on the outward slope. The state then would continue to monitor the section for five years.
Outside of that, the argument can be made to save trees along the base of the outer slope, Mahar said, adding there could be some replanting of trees with shallow roots, grasses and other such vegetation.
Bottom line, though, the state plans to remove all trees and overgrowth from the inside slope and crest of the embankments as it repairs dozens of leaks, or seeps, along miles of earthen embankments in Monroe County and Western New York.
State officials insist that removal of the overgrowth is necessary to repair leaks and ensure safety.
“This canal means a tremendous amount to communities like Perinton, Fairport, Pittsford, Brockport, the city of Rochester,” Mahar said, describing Monroe County as “the sweet spot” or most scenic stretch of the canal system. “There is a lot of economic activity and tourism that's generated here.
“We believe this program strikes that balance between dam safety … and the community side of it.”
Critics maintain that trees are not the problem, and say this is about making inspections quicker and easier at the cost of habitat, shade for recreation and the natural beauty that attracts people to the canal.
The area of potential impact is mainly in Monroe County and Western New York.
“They have made some allowances for the possibility, and I say a possibility, of some areas that would have some low growing screening vegetation or pollinator meadows,” Elizabeth Agte with the grassroots group Stop the Canal Clear Cut wrote in an email. “From the guidebook it seems pretty obvious that those areas would be few and far between.”
Local officials have been briefed on the plan and initial reactions are cautiously optimistic. A community presentation is being planned.
“This is decades of deferred maintenance,” Mahar said. “The trees that are on the embankments today should not be there. They were never intended to be there. ... And now as we try to go in and mitigate the seeps, again, the goal to keep the canal here for the next generation and keep it safe and operable.”