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Q&A with Water Principal and Erie Canal Expert Ken Avery

By Colliers Engineering & Design

With more than 40 years of experience in New York State’s waterways, Water Principal Ken Avery has a resume that spans projects from river hydraulics to ecosystem restoration, flood risk management, dams and levees. Ken believes that we possess the engineering tools and technology to design, construct, manage and operate our water infrastructure in a more resilient manner to yield greater benefits to the public and the environment, while reducing the risks to life and infrastructure.

Here, he discusses the past, present and future of the historic Erie Canal System, and provides an update on how he and the team at Bergmann, an affiliate of Colliers Engineering & Design, are contributing to important efforts to ensure the viability of the system for New York residents and visitors for years to come.

Tell us about your background and what led you to your interest in the Erie Canal.

My interest in the Erie Canal system spans all aspects of it – its history, the economics and the technical details. I grew up in Rochester and lived in New York State my entire life, including going to college there. I’ve always enjoyed the important role of New York State in American history, as my dad has. And I’m fascinated by how the early canal engineers were able to use the materials and the engineering practices they had, which were nothing compared to what we have to work with today, to build the original canal system. They had timber, quarried rock, cement and wrought iron to build the original Erie Canal and the numerous feeder canals. Peter L. Bernstein’s Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation does a really good job of explaining how they accomplished this feat.

Can you explain the different ways the Erie Canal is used today and how it has evolved?

Today, it’s primarily used as a recreational waterway for pleasure boats and the towpath is now the Erie Canal Heritage Trail.  The Erie Canal Heritage Trail  has recently been completed and runs parallel to it for most of its length. But in 1825, the canal system started as a four-foot-deep canal, a ditch essentially. In fact, the first 56 miles of it were built without any locks on a very level, flat area between Rome and Syracuse, NY. Over the years, there were some expansions to the canal in the 1850s. It was deepened into seven feet, and that allowed heavier tonnage to be shipped. In 1918, which seems like it should have been at the end of the canal-building era, the railroads had become very powerful so, the thought was that if we increased the tonnage on the canal and used the materials we have today, you could build the gates of the locks with steel, which is a much stronger material than timber. The availability of steel enabled portions of the Mohawk River to be canalized using moveable dams to create navigation pools between locks located on the river’s edge. That expansion was the first to use large steel structures, and we have one of those structures here in downtown Rochester, New York – the Court Street Dam. The idea was that the Barge Canal system could be a competitor to the railroads. And as late as the 1960s, that canal system was shipping a payload of annually. However, the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway system in 1959, allowed ocean-going ships to come into the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway project, and that really ended most of the commercial shipping on the canal.

What is the current condition of the canal?

If you go along the West River Wall in Rochester, you’ll see that there are sections called monoliths and these are concrete castings that are maybe 40 feet in length.  You’ll see one monolith that looks to be in good condition. And then the one right next to it has an incredible amount of deterioration. If you look at the concrete, you can tell that it’s not broken through the aggregate, but around the aggregate. That’s an indication of poor quality in concrete construction. The concrete practices and quality control were nowhere near as good as they are today. The other aspect of this is that waterway infrastructure is very expensive to rehabilitate.

The canal also includes 130 miles of raised earthen embankments that during the navigation season impound 12 feet of water above the adjacent lands, some of which are residential. Over the years, in many locations, dense tree vegetation has been allowed to grow on the embankments, impairing their inspection and assessment. Bergmann has assisted the Canal Corporation in developing an inspection and maintenance Guide Book and a Generic Environmental Impact Statement to improve the condition and safety of these earthen embankments and reduce the risks to life and damage to nearby infrastructure.  This program will require many years of persistent inspection, evaluation, prioritization and construction to restore the embankments to a safer and more maintainable condition.

Can you tell us about the Reimagine the Canals Initiative and our involvement?

 Reimagine the Canals was announced in 2019. It’s a sweeping initiative to see how the canal system can be reimaged for the 21st century. There are five objectives:

  • Resilience – Utilize Canal infrastructure to mitigate summer flooding and eliminate ice jams in the Mohawk Valley
  • Regeneration – Adaptively reuse infrastructure and surplus land to improve the quality of life in communities bordering the waterway
  • Restoration – Manage the waterway to restore the natural environment for people and wildlife, rebalancing a highly compromised ecosystem
  • Reuse – Use water no longer needed for large ships to support new uses such as agriculture and recreational fishing, and further bolster water- and trail-based recreation and tourism
  • Retrofit – Identify opportunities to drive operational improvement that will reduce ongoing operations and maintenance costs and generate revenue

We’re involved in a number of ways, primarily looking at flood mitigation on the Mohawk River. We also provided a lot of hydraulic evaluations and flood damage evaluations, both in terms of the potential flood damage reduction and in flood insurance premium reductions that could be achieved simply by operating the canal system in a way where the movable dams gates would be opened in advance of a flood event, and to release their impounded water. Another aspect that we helped out with is managing water in the 60-mile pool between Rochester and Lockport to support recreational sport fisheries.

What advice do you have for people looking to get into the waterways field?

If you’re interested in any aspect of water, dive in.  Take on part-time or permanent jobs, take courses in the water field, read the history of great water projects, read technical literature and read water policy. While on this journey, take every opportunity to learn more and soon you’ll find what you’re most passionate and gifted for.

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