Earlier this year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that he wants to "reimagine" the Erie Canal and the other parts of the state's canal system.
Cuomo chose 31 people to find ways to improve economic and environmental uses of the historic waterway as its third century of service begins in 2025.
But people who depend on the canal for their livelihood, or for the economic health of their communities, are nervous about the process. For weeks, rumors have been flying around upstate New York about what Cuomo and the task force might have in mind.
Fears have been whispered about a possible reduction of Erie Canal service, the removal of dams on the Mohawk River and whether the state might turn over some of the system to the federal government.
Former Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, the western regional co-chair of the panel, said he was even asked before its first meeting if part of the canal is closing.
"I called the governor's office and talked to one of my former teammates, who said, 'Absolutely not. That has never been discussed,' " Duffy said. "Whoever's starting these rumors, it's either out of fear or trying to somehow undermine this process."
Cuomo has a history of trying to assist canal communities. In the late 1990s, when he was housing and urban development secretary in the Clinton administration, he steered $131 million in federal money to New York's canal towns through a Canal Corridor Initiative. During his years as governor, a variety of state programs have sought to assist upstate cities, including those on the canal.
"I don't think anybody in my history has made more investments upstate than this governor has, so I don't think he's going to do anything but enhance the impact and the economic activity of the canal," Duffy said.
But when asked about other rumors, Duffy said, "I can't reassure you on anything, only because there are no decisions or recommendations even formulated yet."
The governor's goals
Cuomo's initial statements on Reimagining the Canal sought to balance environmental and economic aspects of the nearly 200-year-old waterway.
A May 17 news release announcing the program set five main goals: to identify potential new uses for the Erie Canal aimed at improving New Yorkers' quality of life; find ways for the canal to support and enhance economic development; new opportunities for canal-related recreation and tourism; determine how the canal could be used to mitigate flooding impacts and restore ecosystems; and identify opportunities for expanding irrigation for Western New York farms.
Also, Duffy said he would like the task force to find a way to better balance the canal system's budget.
This year the canal system's operating budget is $141 million, but it generates only about $2 million in annual revenue, according to canal spokesman Steven Gosset.
All of these goals cover a lot of territory, and Duffy said there are no preconceived plans.
"I would not be involved in something where the decisions were already made and we're put out there to go through the motions," Duffy said.
Gosset said the goal is to provide Cuomo with plans he could announce during his State of the State speech in January.
Duffy said he doesn't expect to make any recommendations until this fall. Then the decisions will be up to Cuomo and Gil C. Quiniones, president of the New York Power Authority, which took charge of the New York State Canal Corp. in 2017.
Where did rumors start?
One trigger point for activating the rumor mill might have been a report in the Albany Times-Union about the first task force public meeting, held July 11 in Schenectady.
The Times-Union quoted Chris Callaghan, a one-time state comptroller candidate, as wondering why a video shown at the start of the meeting didn't show what the article called "the most obvious use of the canal: power boating."
"If they are not in the pictures, they are not in the reimagination," Callaghan said, according to the article.
Boat US, the nation's largest group of boat owners with 650,000 members, then posted a news release online, linking to the article and urging boaters to weigh in on the canal plans by attending a meeting or posting on the state's "Reimagining the Canal" website.
"Some of the towns along (the canal), they were built along that waterfront," David Kennedy, manager of government affairs for BoatUS, said in an interview. "The boats need a way to get there."
Another seed for the rumors might have been a July 10 email blast by the Nature Conservancy of New York.
"The Nature Conservancy is participating as a member of the task force because we believe it’s important to ensure that environmental benefits are front and center as recommendations are developed for the reuse of the canal," wrote Jessica Ottney Mahar, the conservancy's policy and strategy director.
She said the old canal created numerous negative environmental impacts.
"These impacts range from altering the natural flows of the Mohawk River, to fragmenting wetlands and watersheds, to creating pathways for the spread of invasive species," Mahar wrote.
"We have a great opportunity to consider achieving significant environmental benefits, in addition to co-benefits such as promoting community prosperity, mitigating flooding, enhancing resiliency, increasing recreational opportunities, and honoring the history and significance of the canal," Mahar added.
A dissatisfied businessman
Mike Murphy, owner of Lockport Locks and Erie Canal Cruises, said he hadn't heard the rumors about the canal's future, but he said his company has been hurt by past Power Authority decisions, such as reducing the length of the navigation season.
There have been years when the canal ran from April into November, but this year it opened May 17 and will close Oct. 16.
"The opening and closing dates really affect us, and they just don't care," Murphy said. "They want to close it right after Columbus Day. September and October have become two of our biggest months."
"The current navigation season reflects when the overwhelming majority of recreational vessels have traditionally used the system. It was modified two years ago to lessen a backlog of necessary construction and maintenance," a Canal Corp. statement said.
Canal policy allows commercial operators to apply for permits to use the canal before or after the official navigation season if conditions allow.
Murphy said he has been to meetings with the Power Authority that he considered a waste of time.
"They want to tell you about their safety record," he said. "They want to tell you how clean the chrome is on their trucks and how well everything is painted."
He said the authority "needs to be more considerate of people and their needs."
Rumors keep flowing
In an echo chamber of gossip, members of canal promotion groups have been telling each other that Cuomo might order a reduction in water levels in some or all of the 363-mile Erie Canal, so that it would be too shallow to handle anything bigger than a kayak.
Or that he might remove the dams on the historically flood-prone Mohawk River, which could make the eastern part of the canal difficult to navigate.
Or that he might turn the Champlain Canal in northern New York over to the Army Corps of Engineers.
None of the rumors could be confirmed last week. But many canal stakeholders from Lockport to Albany told The Buffalo News that they had heard all of them.
"We're concerned about some of the rumors we've heard," said David R. Kinyon, president of the Lockport Locks Heritage Corp. and an officer of the Canal Society of New York.
"This process has been not very transparent, so I don't have any proof of anything," said Erin Tobin, vice president of the Preservation League of New York.
But based on statements like Mahar's email regarding the Mohawk River, Tobin said, "It seems like there's some basis for those rumors; but as of now, they're just that."
Bill Drage, chairman of Canal New York, which calls itself a chamber of commerce for the canal, said he thinks the rumor about dropping the water level on the canal in Western New York is believable because of a backlog of maintenance projects.
"I understood that, but what I reminded NYPA was, 'Yeah, you're an infrastructure company, but you're in the tourism business now,' " Drage said. "Gov. Cuomo has banked the future of New York, especially upstate, on tourism, and the canal is an integral part of that."
Duffy said he told his colleagues at a recent meeting that all this talk is hurting the task force's work.
"I made it very clear, we have to stop these rumors and reacting to rumors, because they're damaging," Duffy said.
There are no elected officials on the task force, but Duffy said he is sure Cuomo will talk to elected officials about his canal plans before he goes public with them.