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Erie Canal Summer Recreation Up In The Air

ROCHESTER, NY (WXXI) - The Erie Canal will stay shallow and closed to boaters and recreational users beyond May 15, the date the state Canal Corp. had set for opening the waterway for through navigation.

No new date has been set, but a statement issued by the Canal Corp. to mariners said the agency is considering opening certain portions of the canal “on a regional basis” this boating season.

“Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Canal Corporation has suspended all non-essential construction and maintenance activities, therefore the New York State Canal system will not open for through navigation of the locks on May 15 as previously announced,” the statement read.

“However,” the statement went on, “to support the canal’s continued use as a prime recreational waterway, the Canal Corporation is currently evaluating operation options to ensure New Yorkers will have access to the canal system, if even potentially on a regional basis, this season.”

In March, as the outbreak ramped up, the Canal Corp. halted maintenance work on eight lock stations across the system, including Lock E-33 in Henrietta.

Repairing the locks, which allow boats to travel from one neck of the waterway to another, was deemed nonessential work.

The Erie Canal winds for more than 500 miles and links Lake Erie and Lake Ontario with the Hudson River and Lake Champlain.

A 2015 Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor study found businesses along the canal corridor account for $308 million in economic activity, support 3,240 jobs, and generate $35 million in tax revenue.

Julie Domaratz, the mayor of Fairport, where the canal is central to village life in the summer, said the economic impact of a delayed canal opening or the canal remaining closed cannot be immediately known.

“There will certainly be a negative impact to villages that are so closely identified as being ‘canal town,’ but we won’t be able to truly quantify that impact until later this year,” Domaratz said. “On the water, boat traffic and tourism businesses that depend upon the water will be missing and be missed by those who look forward to the few months we have of warm weather here."

During the summer months, boats of all sizes are continuously moored along the canal in Fairport, including the popular cruise vessel, the Colonial Belle. The village hires dockmasters to oversee and maintain the traffic and charges boaters anywhere from $8 to $17 a night to dock, depending on the size of the boat.

Scott Winner, executive director of the Fairport Perinton Partnership, a nonprofit that promotes the village and town, said the Colonial Belle draws 12,000 passengers each year and that the village hosts roughly 2,700 boat nights per season.

"I don't know how to replace those," Winner said.

"The canal is so woven in to the fabric of the community and all the rest -- Brockport, Spencerport, Pittsford," Winner added. "It's a huge economic engine."

On Saturday, the canal towpath entertained a steady stream of visitors under sunny skies. The water level was at least 8 feet below where it would be at its height.

Nearby, the Erie Canal Boat Company, which rents kayaks and would normally be readying for the water to rise, was dormant. A message posted on its website read, “We won’t be accepting walk-up customers until the social distancing ends.”

David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at  dandreatta@rochester-citynews.com.