States fight over canal closure

An interstate battle may be brewing after a group of scientists and Vermont officials have asked for the closure of the Champlain Canal to control the spread of a recently discovered invasive species. But officials in New York have said the canal will remain open.

Tim Mihuc, director of the Lake Champlain Institute at SUNY Plattsburgh, sent an email to fellow scientists and researchers last week asking them to support a proposal for the immediate closure of the Champlain Canal in an effort to prevent the spiny water flea from entering Lake Champlain.

He suggests closing the canal from Lock 9 — near where two juvenile spiny water fleas were found in June — to Lock 12.

On Friday, Mihuc said there is still hope to prevent the invasive species from entering the lake if something was done immediately.

“We have to act now or it’s going to invade Lake Champlain,” Mihuc said.

Nearly 60 people — fellow researchers and advocates — signed the letter which was sent to officials in New York and Vermont.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont added his voice to the debate during a press conference held Monday morning, calling for the immediate closure of the canal if it would prevent the flea from reaching Lake Champlain.

“We must do everything we can to prevent the spiny water flea from reaching and infesting Lake Champlain. Possibly the only way to stop or slow its advance is to ‘shut the door’ by closing some portion of the Champlain Canal,” he said. “The experts on Lake Champlain and invasive species have convened at the Lake Champlain Basin Program to assess the problem. If they find that there is any chance that closing part of the Champlain Canal can stop or even slow the spread of this invasive creature, then the New York State Canal Corporation must act quickly to do just that.”

But according to top ranking officials with Canal Corp., the Champlain Canal will not be closed.

In a statement, Dan Weiller, director of public affairs for Canal Corp., said “The Canal Corporation wants to assure travelers, canal-related businesses and local residents that there is no plan to shut down the Champlain Canal.

“We are actively working with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and our partners in the Lake Champlain Basin to examine alternatives to slow the spread of the spiny water flea.”

On Monday afternoon, the Lake Champlain Basin Aquatic Invasive Species Rapid Response Task Force released its recommendations to slow the spread of the spiny water flea and stopped short of calling for the canal’s closure, despite its belief that it would be an effective means on control.

In a statement released by DEC on behalf of the task force, officials said, “The Task Force recognizes that the quick closure of the Champlain Canal and the Glens Falls Feeder Canal, which could control and eradicate spiny water flea, is not technically, legally or economically feasible.”

The task force did recommend redirecting surplus water flow in the Champlain Canal into the Hudson River side of the system as well as calling for a feasibility study to explore the possibility of developing a hydrologic barrier in the canal that would prevent the water flea from infiltrating Lake Champlain.

Mihuc said a hydrologic barrier would be an acceptable means on control. He also recommended diverting water from the Feeder Canal into the Hudson River.

There has been debate for years about the canal’s role in spreading invasive species into Lake Champlain, which is a federally regulated waterway.

A 2005 study conducted by scientists from the Lake Champlain Sea Grant, the University of Vermont, and SUNY Plattsburgh, described the canal as the largest known vector for nuisance species in Lake Champlain. Sea lamprey, water chestnut, zebra mussel and white perch are all thought to have entered the lake via the canal.

Because the canal system is located entirely within New York’s borders, Vermont officials have little power to compel the state to close the canal.

Although sensitive to the problems spiny water fleas present, Assemblyman Tony Jordan released a statement Monday against the closure of the canal.

“There is no question that the health and vitality of our waterways is critically important to all of us, especially those who live and work along Lake Champlain and the Champlain Canal system. In these economically sensitive times, however, we must find solutions that protect our environment without harming the business, tourism industry, and communities that these waterways serve.”

George Armstrong, town supervisor, also joined in voicing his displeasure over the proposal.

“We need to figure out how to expand traffic, not shut it down,” said Armstrong. “These people spend quite a bit of money in town. I’m adamantly opposed to anything that discourages traffic.”

The canal plays an important role in the local economy, bringing customers to area businesses. Nearly 5,000 boats have passed through the canal this year alone and Canal Corp. officials said closing the canal would have a significant impact on communities along the waterway. Its closure would also necessitate the shutdown of a hydroelectric facility in Whitehall that generates an estimated $170,000 in local economic activity, Weiller said.

Jordan’s office estimated the canal brings $43.5 million into the communities surrounding it each year.

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