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Plan to shut off American falls in limbo with funds held up in Albany

A plan to shut off the water on the American side of Niagara Falls to repair a bridge is still on the books, but the retiring chief of Western New York's state parks said this week there is no money to carry it out.

"We're on a hold pattern, still, with that," said Mark W. Thomas, regional director of state parks.

Thomas announced in 2016 that the pedestrian bridge between the City of Niagara Falls and Goat Island needed to be demolished and replaced.

Engineers decided the only way to replace the bridge safely would be to build a temporary dam at the eastern end of Goat Island to block that channel of the Niagara River, leading to the American and Bridal Veil Falls.

News that the Falls could be turned off, as was done for a rock stability project in 1969, stirred up worldwide interest.

But in an interview with The Buffalo News this week, Thomas said the $30 million needed to carry out the project has not been approved in Albany, and he has no idea when it will be.

Thomas added that he is certain the project will eventually be funded.

"That day will come," Thomas said. "I am absolutely confident it will come."

The state has completed its scoping and preliminary design phases of the project.

"What's left is the final design, more advanced environmental studies and the permitting, which are significant components to complete," Thomas said.

The permits for dewatering the Falls would have to come from the International Joint Commission, the U.S.-Canadian Great Lakes agency, even though all the work would be in American waters.

The American falls would be shut off only for one construction season, not during the winter, Thomas said.

The Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side would not be turned off. The plan to divert water would instead make its flow temporarily stronger. It normally carries 85 percent of the Niagara River's flow.

The pedestrian bridge project involves two spans that were built in 1901: a 424-foot bridge from the mainland to Green Island, and the 245-foot span between Green and Goat islands.

It's the mainland-to-Green portion of the work that would require the Falls to be shut off. The Green-to-Goat span crosses a narrower channel, which would have to be blocked off, but that wouldn't prevent water from going over the Falls.

[Gallery: When the American falls first went dry]

In the meantime, a temporary bridge with its own suspension has been installed over the top of the old pedestrian bridge.

"We have a very safe situation there," Thomas said.

"We are a long way from any discussions on dewatering the Falls at this time," a State Parks spokesman said in an email. "Replacing the American Falls Bridge will likely carry a price tag expected to be in the tens of millions, and we are working to identify sources of funding. Until we can secure the money, this project is on hold."

Thomas said the statewide capital projects budget for State Parks is about $90 million a year, so it's hard to obtain $30 million for a single project.

That much "for one project when we're addressing a multitude of needs statewide is why there's a challenge here," Thomas said. "It's still being worked on in Albany. They're working on lining up funding."

He said he didn't think the delay has anything to do with the fact that the state already has invested about $75 million in landscape improvements at Niagara Falls in the past six years.

The site of the removal of 73 trees in Niagara Falls State Park on May 11, 2018. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

That includes the controversial removal of the former Great Lakes Garden and 73 trees near the park entrance to make way for a new walkway and an additional bus drop-off lane. That project calls for planting 99 news trees.

"We were staring down very serious safety issues, as well as the wear and tear on the park," Thomas said. "There was dirt and mud everywhere. There was such a volume of people and they walked everywhere. They didn't stay on the pathways. The pathways weren't wide enough to handle the crowds we have today. We had to do a comprehensive reconstruction of the entire entrance to the park to address the safety and the pedestrian loading issues."

He said city leaders and USA Niagara Development Corp., a state agency, "made it very clear they no longer wanted a vegetative visual barrier to the city, which was built when the garden was put in."

The garden now being removed was installed in the early 1980s, Thomas said.

"This was all parking lot out here, by the way. They built that (garden) over that," he added. "These walkways will be wider and sized appropriately for the crowds. ... We, by the landscape that was created, created the problem."

Thomas, 64, who was Chautauqua County executive from 1998 to 2005, has served 11 years as regional parks chief. His last day on the job is Wednesday, and he will be replaced by Mark V. Mistretta, the capital facilities director for the Western New York parks.

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