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Cuomo's $300M Erie Canal proposal: More recreation, fishing, irrigation

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's announcement Monday of his $300 million proposal for improvements along the Erie Canal did not mention closing portions of the historic waterway, as a consultant's report did last fall.

Cuomo announced a batch of proposed projects and initiatives to boost the canal's economic impact.

Among them:

• Upgrading existing irrigation systems along the canal, making water more easily available to farmers, along with a suggestion for a new Western New York irrigation district whose boundaries have yet to be drawn.

• Dredging and filling in portions of the Mohawk River, part of a package of efforts aimed at preventing ice jams and summer flooding in the Schenectady and Scotia areas, a $65 million project.

• Sending a total of $100 million to canal communities through an economic development fund. Five major projects are earmarked for a total of $25 million, including a project in Brockport, where the Empire State Trail and the Village of Brockport would be connected to the SUNY Brockport campus by converting a canal guard gate into a pedestrian bridge.

Creating more recreational activities along the canal will boost tourism, according to his proposal, which will be included in his State of the State address Wednesday.

Also, to "create world-class fishing in Western New York," Cuomo's proposal recommends managing water releases from the canal to enhance fish habitat, improve angling opportunities and extend the fall fishing season in Lake Ontario tributaries. It also includes funding to expand public fishing access along key streams in Orleans, Monroe and Niagara counties.

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A Cuomo-appointed task force previously recommended further study of blocking the canal system at Rochester, Rome and Oswego to prevent the migration of invasive aquatic species from the Great Lakes and the Hudson River to inland waters via the canals.

The Reimagine the Canals Task Force also called for further study of a bioacoustic fish fence — an underwater array of noisemakers — near Tonawanda to scare Asian carp back to Lake Erie. The consultant's report suggested a location at the Amherst-Pendleton border.

"That report was specifically done without regard to impact to navigation but asked a very technical scientific question," said Kim Harriman, senior vice president of public and regulatory affairs at the New York Power Authority. The state Canal Corp. is a NYPA subsidiary.

"The task force also acknowledged that invasive species and its impact on New York is an important issue we have to think about because of its impact both to the ecosystem as well as the economy," Harriman said.

"In connecting the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, the designers of the Canal inadvertently created an 'invasive species superhighway,' " the report said.

"When the Erie Canal was created in the 19th century it set the state and the nation on a path to prosperity, and this year we will repurpose the canal to fit our state's 21st century needs," Cuomo said in a statement.

Cuomo said his plan for the waterway "will build on the success of the Empire State Trail, grow tourism across Upstate New York, improve resilience of today's canal communities and ensure the economic sustainability of the waterway into the future."

Cuomo wants the power authority to approve the $300 million plan over the next five years at its Jan. 29 board meeting.

Other projects include creating a whitewater rafting course at the north end of Cayuga Lake near Seneca Falls; building a canalside pocket neighborhood in Canastota; connecting a former manor in Amsterdam to the trail via a pedestrian bridge over a canal lock; and installing illuminated portable dams, to be placed first in Amsterdam and Canajoharie.

None of this involves blocking navigation at any point along the 195-year-old, 360-mile Erie Canal, a New York Power Authority spokeswoman said.

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