New York’s canals invite non-natives to (and from) the lake
By Ry Rivard
When humans plumbed upstate New York with 500 miles of canals for shipping, they connected the Great Lakes, the Hudson River and Lake Champlain.
Their goal was to easily move goods. The plan worked—spectacularly at the time. But the builders of the 19th century gave little thought to the bad things that happen when fish and plants move through canals and end up in places they don’t belong.
The answer is damaging invasions—insatiable foreigner fish that crowd out native fish, non-native weeds that cover acres of water, and colonizing mollusks that cling to concrete and clog pipes.
Now, long after trains and trucks took business away from barges, officials are turning their attention to stopping invasive species, perhaps even at the expense of boats passing easily through the canals.
In and around the Adirondacks, the biggest route for invaders may be the Champlain Canal, which connects Lake Champlain to the Hudson River with a series of boat locks that, depending on which way you’re going, begin or end along the lake near Whitehall.
There are already about 50 invasive species in Lake Champlain. Officials have spent millions trying to eliminate just a few of the most destructive invasive species, like Eurasian watermilfoil and water chestnut, two plants that form thick mats atop water and make it hard for boaters to boat and swimmers to swim.
More may be on their way. Like our own circulatory system, if poison gets in the blood one place, it’ll eventually find its way everywhere.
The most would-be invaders lurk in the Great Lakes, often having hitchhiked on ocean freighters that head up the St. Lawrence Seaway. More than 200 non-native species infest the Great Lakes, with dozens more threatening to arrive. The Hudson itself has more than 100 non-native species, including some that came down from the Great Lakes.
Lake Champlain is connected to the Great Lakes two ways, through a Canadian canal to the St. Lawrence River and through New York’s canal system, because the Erie Canal ties together the Hudson and the Great Lakes near Buffalo.
Researchers don’t know how every invader got to Lake Champlain, but their best efforts to find out suggest half entered the lake through one of the two canals and most used the Champlain Canal.
Now, for the first time in a long time, there’s serious talk of trying to stop the spread of species by creating barriers in the canal system or even closing part of it entirely.
“We’re considering both,” said Matt Cosby, the chief of staff in the Army Corps of Engineers’ New York district office. The Army Corps is studying how to deal with invasive species in the Champlain Canal, which is operated now by the New York State Canal Corp.
If anything happens, it’ll likely take awhile. Most people still shy away from “close.” It’s almost like a curse word to boaters who still use the canals and in towns that exist thanks to the canals and still benefit from the tourism they bring
Instead, government officials, researchers and environmentalists who combat invasive species are focused on a “hydrologic separation.” That’s a fancy way of saying they’d like to see boats able to move from one place to another while water and critters stay put.
How would a boat move between watersheds without mixing water?
First, officials could close locks, the water-filled chambers that boats enter to be raised or lowered between different stretches of a canal. Then, they could build a boat lift, which would hoist boats out of a canal and move them by land around a closed lock.
Another idea is to replumb the canal so that water can’t go back and forth between the Hudson and Champlain, but that would require a new water source.
Right now, there are 11 locks in the Champlain Canal. Locks 12 through 9 help raise boats out of Lake Champlain starting at Whitehall until they are 140 feet above sea level. Then locks 8 through 1 help lower them back down, this time into the Hudson River, 60 miles away. To go from the Hudson to the lake, the process is reversed. (The numbers don’t add up because Lock 10 was planned for but never built.)
For years, officials in Vermont have wanted New York to do something about the Champlain Canal because water climbing the locks from the Hudson can mix with water dropping to the lake. In 2012, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, called on New York to close part of the canal but to keep an invasive crustacean known as the spiny water flea from entering Lake Champlain. The flea eventually made it to the lake, though it may have gotten there another way.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has given some in Vermont reasons to hope. Last May, he launched a program to “reimagine” the canals.
So far, the focus has been on the Erie Canal, which connects the Great Lakes to the Hudson River. But the project is giving heart to people trying to save Lake Champlain by stopping species traversing the Champlain Canal.
“Closing the canal is basically off the table, at least it was until recently, and that might have changed,” said J. Ellen Marsden, a biology professor at the University of Vermont who has studied what’s living in the Champlain Canal.
One of the state’s own consultants threw out a bunch of ideas, including closing and draining part the canal system, closing locks and installing boat lifts. The consultants also recommended strobe lights that would repel fish, but that’s another story.
When news of those findings and the word “close” became public, the New York State Canal Corp. tried to downplay the plan, which freaked out local officials along the Erie Canal. The report, by R2 Resource Consultants, purposefully didn’t talk about the Champlain Canal because of the Army Corps’ ongoing study.
But the Canal Corp. is as protective of the Champlain Canal as it is the Erie Canal.
“The entire system will remain fully open for navigation,” Canal Corp. spokesman Steven Gosset said during a recent tour of Lock 12. That’s the final lock near Whitehall that moves boats in and out of the lake.
Marsden said another option is to only open the final lock once a year for a major haul, like a barge.
“We’re not trying to stop all the exotics coming into the lake, we’re trying to minimize the problem,” she said.
Invaders can still hitch a ride in other ways, like on the hulls of boats, in bilge tanks, in bait buckets or even through another canal, the Chambly Canal on the Richelieu River, which enabled shipping through Lake Champlain’s natural outlet to the St. Lawrence in Canada.
This winter, Lock 12 on the Champlain Canal has been drained so workers could inspect it and make repairs. What workers said were zebra mussels coated the walls of the lock. The clingy bivalves from the Black and Caspian seas made it into Lake Champlain decades ago, and can clog intake pipes, mess up boats and muscle out native species.
Pleasure boaters still use the canal in season, and people who bring their boats up from warm winter waters to Lake Champlain in the summer need it. The lock closest to the lake opens about 1,000 times a year to let boats through, sometimes several boats at a time. But John Rozell, Whitehall’s town supervisor, said he remembered when two or three barges a day came through there.
Now, there might be that many commercial barges in a year that pass all the way through the Champlain Canal.
Some companies, particularly quarries, still use part of the canal to ship rock, and they’re worried about where any new barrier would go.
Jessica Ladd, a spokeswoman for Champlain Stone, which has a quarry near Whitehall, said it’s cheaper for the company to ship stone to Manhattan by barge than any other way. The company worries about a barrier that could block the shipping route.
Rob Goldman, who co-owns the New York State Marine Highway Transportation Co., which operates barges that use the canal, said putting in a barrier sounds crazy. He said one quarry he worked for didn’t need to use the whole length of the canal, but he has shipped oversized components and heavy equipment all the way through to Lake Champlain.
“This is never gonna happen, are you kidding me? It’s the most crazy thing I’ve ever heard,” Goldman said. “They don’t have enough money to do other things – they have bridges that need work.”