Report of the Joint Legislative Committee on The Barge Canal

Chapter 3 -- Uses of the Canal

The barge canal has diverse uses, some in existence for many years, others relatively new. The primary use, of course, is shipping; it was designed and built for that purpose. But population growth, industrial expansion, scientific discoveries, more leisure time, advanced agricultural processes, all requiring more water in a pure state have made the canal a multi-purpose, invaluable servant of the whole area through which it passes. The uses our people now have for the canal and its waters include water power, flood control, water supply, both industrial and domestic, irrigation, conservation and recreation.

First follows a review of commercial navigation on the canal, the other uses will be considered.

Designers of the canal foresaw an annual traffic of ten million tons; in its forty-two years it has never achieved that figure. The peak load of 5,211,472 tons was realized in 1951. Thereafter a decline in tonnage has been experienced, the 1960 figure being 3,415,095. This is a shrinkage of 34.5% during the past ten years. (Appendix D.) Today canal cargo is chiefly bulk commodities. It has been many years since any significant amount of package freight has been born by the canal. Manufacturers seem to feel that canal shipments are only economical when products are shipped in bulk. With the exception of other miscellaneous and manufactured products which ranked sixteenth in 1960 at 8,641 tons, every item on the list is a bulk product.

One commodity heads the list, petroleum, which for upwards of 25 years has been the heaviest user. Shipments include oil in all forms from highly refined gasolines and jet fuels to kerosene and heavy bunker "C" fuel. This leadership has remained constant during the past ten years. In 1951, 3,937,510 tons of petroleum products were carried on the canal, representing 72.1% of the total traffic; 2,462,532 tons were born in 1960 or 75.5% of all cargo. While petroleum maintains its position of leadership only 62.5% of the 1951 total traveled the canal in 1960. This shrinkage was close to the loss in total shipments which dropped to 65.5% in the same period. Of the 1,795,377 ton decline between 1951 and 1960, 75%, or 3,464,978 tons was in petroleum.

Grain is the only other important commodity that has declined substantially in the last decade. In 1951, wheat at 543,522 tons ranked second in canal tonnage. A total of 665,000 tons of wheat, corn, oats and rye was shipped that year. By 1960 the figure had shrunk to 106,786 tons. When this is added to the 1,464,078 ton shrinkage in petroleum it exceeds the total loss in tonnage between the years in question by approximately 225,000 tons. Hence there has been a small increase in all commodities other than grain and petroleum during this period.

The two big gainers have been bituminous materials, 230,040 tons, ranking second in 1960, and chemicals and drugs, 231,788 tons, ranking third. In 1951, there were no bituminous materials on the canal and only 56,282 tons of chemicals.

A good share of the chemical products are dry and liquid caustic soda from Wyandotte, Michigan and soda ash from Solvay, New York, destined to points in the New York City area and New Jersey.

Products such as molasses and sugar have been shipped on the canal during the past ten years in roughly the same amounts as in previous periods. This is also true of paper and paper products.

However there has been a marked increase in the canal movement of agricultural oils. The entry of newer commodities may be significant in a period of general decline of the traditional users. But the overall increases have not been substantial.

The tonnage figures in Appendix F reveal that the biggest canal movement originates on the Erie division with 1,772,780 tons, 1,205,216 on the Champlain, 412,110 on the Oswego and 28,080 on the Seneca-Cayuga. Most movements were west and north from the Hudson River-Albany area. In considering the tonnage of the Oswego Canal, in addition to the originating 412,110 tons, another 601,000 passed through its waters. This raises the Oswego tonnage close to that born by the Champlain.

The great bulk of the tonnage on the Erie Canal moved between Three Rivers and Albany. Of the 1,509,761 tons that entered at Troy, 1,246,561 went no farther than Syracuse or Oswego and 353,200 went to points west of Three Rivers. One hundred twenty-one thousand two hundred thirty-three tons entered the Erie Canal at Tonawanda moving eastward, and inconsequential amounts originated at other points between Tonawanda and Three Rivers. Thus the commercial use of the western division of the Erie is far less than that of the eastern sections.

During the 1960 season cargo origins and destinations were as follows:

17.l% originated in state for out of state points, 32.1% originated out of state for in state points,
30.8% originated out of state for out of state points, 40% was completely originated and
89.2% either started from or was destined to a point within New York, illustrating the importance of the canal to the state's business.

The same year a total of seventy-one tugs, 171 barges and twenty-one motor ships operated on all branches of the canal system.

In this first study we have sought to learn the reasons for the fall-off in canal traffic. On this subject there is some divergence of opinion but the three primary reasons appear to be:

I. Competition.   Many alternate means of carriage have undoubtedly taken business from the canal. Railroads, rival waterways, particularly the St. Lawrence Seaway, pipe lines and trucks have taken their toll. In recent years railroads have become intensely competitive, particularly with rates for grain and other agricultural products. Canal advocates have long claimed that the mere presence of the canal, even if it bore no commercial ships, kept rail rates much lower than they would otherwise be.

The St. Lawrence, the Mississippi and other water routes have provided serious competition. This is again reflected in the grain trade. Why start wheat to Europe by water from Duluth, break bulk at Oswego and move it by canal to Albany for loading in ocean vessels when a ship can be loaded at Duluth and move directly to an overseas destination? When they can be used profitably, modern waterways such as the St. Lawrence, Mississippi and Ohio can readily readily undersell the older Barge Canal.

Pipe lines carrying oil to almost every area in New York have provided crippling competition to the canal. A striking example of this is shown in shipments to the City of Rochester. In 1950 416,875 tons of petroleum products moved into Rochester via the canal. In 1953 this figure was still at 278,089 tons. By 1954 a pipe line was extended to Rochester and only 33,159 tons of petroleum products came by canal to that city. Since then there has been some increase but it has never exceeded 90,000 tons annually.

There are no pipe lines to effect oil movements to the Lake Champlain area.

2. Archaic Construction.   Even with the completion of the Great Lakes-Hudson Waterway modernization program many shippers feel the canal will still be obsolete. Other inland waterways have locks ranging from 600 to 1000 feet in length and 75 to 110 feet in width as against the 328 by 45-foot locks in the Barge Canal. These larger waterways can handle single tows with tonnages between 20,000 and 26,000, as against a 2,500 maximum on the barge Canal. Consequently, shipping costs over the more modern waterways are two or three and more times cheaper than those prevailing on the New York Artery.

3. Promotion.   There is one school that feels the Barge Canal needs energetic sales promotion to lure traffic. This group claims that many traffic agents are unaware of its commercial values and have no realization of the savings that its use could bring. They urge that if the canal were really promoted a substantial increase in tonnage would quickly follow. To accomplish this the departmental staff and budget would have to be increased.

Non-Shipping Uses of the Canal.   The committee is impressed with the number and importance of the functions of the canal not related to shipping. Some experts on water resources feel these uses have more present day significance than commercial traffic.

The non-commercial uses are so numerous that an inventory of them and certain accruing rights must be made by the committee. At this point in our study we can only indicate the important areas of private and public enterprise which use the waterway. Future committee work will catalog all non-shipping canal uses. They fall mainly into two categories:

1. Use of canal water for recreation and other public and private functions.

2. Rights to use canal lands which derive from quasi-prescriptive occupation or revocable permits granted by the Department of Public Works.

On December 31, 1960, 3,667 active revocable permits existed. They produced during that year a revenue of approximately $110,000. Of the total, 231 were for use of water. The remaining were for various parcels of canal lands (Appendix C). A brief description of the principal uses of canal water follows:

Hydro-Electric Power.   Approximately fifteen permits have been issued to public utilities and manufacturers to use surplus water for generation of electric power. These are found on the Oswego and Genesee Rivers and the section of the canal west of Rochester, especially around Lockport.

A typical example is the right granted Rochester Gas and Electric Corporation to use up to 375 cubic feet per second of surplus canal water at the eastern end of the sixty-mile level. RG&E has three hydraulic power installations generating 68,000 kilowatts on the Genesee River and a large thermo steam unit of 250,000 kilowatts capacity. For $666,000 it constructed the Court Street dam in Rochester and gave it to the state. All three plants would not function during periods of low water in the summer without using excess canal water. A $40 million investment of RG&E depends upon this water. Its importance to the entire Rochester area can hardly be overemphasized.

Of equal importance to their surrounding areas are hydro plants operated by public utilities and depending on canal waters at Fulton, Lockport, Oswego, Medina and other places.

Water, as it is to everything else in life, is of prime importance to modern industry. Any consideration of canal development must include provisions for industry's continuing and expanding needs for this precious element.

Irrigation.   The average New Yorker has no concept of what a constant supply of water means to our farmers, particularly growers competing with areas which have irrigation programs. New York is blessed with an abundant rainfall but not always in the growing season, particularly in the western part of the state. An ever growing number of farmers in that area are dipping into the canal to water their often parched fields.

Studies of these problems are contained in reports of the Temporary Commissions on Irrigation and Water Resources. This committee plans to consult with these groups on this whole aspect of canal waters.

We have no estimate of the amount of canal water diverted for irrigation. Fifty-nine of the seventy-six agricultural permits have been for the western part of the canal.

Some of the commercial uses of canal water relate to agriculture. Canners, freezers and packers use substantial amounts of canal water by permit in their processes.

Flood Control.   There is sharp opinion both ways whether the canal benefits flood control. Joseph H. Salmon ("Economic Survey of the New York State Barge Canal", 1951) states that 25 percent of the cost of canal construction should be allocated to flood control. Others assert flood control functions of the canal are incidental and indirect.

The canal was not built for flood control. But most agree there is some degree of flood control benefit in the Mohawk, Oneida, Seneca and Oswego River valleys. This is especially true in the Mohawk where the Hinckley and Delta Reservoirs retain a large portion of the spring freshets from the Adirondacks which would be otherwise uncontrolled. But the courts have held that the state cannot be forced to operate dams as flood control facilities. The one function of these dams is to hold these waters for proper canal levels.

Some study should be made of the flood control benefits from the canal.

Recreation.   More New Yorkers directly enjoy the canal through boating annually other single use.

Pleasure boaters are cramming this artery in exploding numbers. In 1956, 3,465 lock permits were issued for pleasure boats using the canal. In 1960 this figure almost doubled to 6,052. In that year 21,000 individual pleasure boats locked in the canal and 250,000 of them, from the dinghy type to the most elaborate yachts, used its waters.

In 1960 there were ten permits for the operation of pleasure boat marinas on canal lands; others are conducted on an informal basis. The Conservation Department and the State Parks Commission are developing areas that can be used for pleasure boat facilities and other recreational purposes. These service areas and marine enterprises number in the thousands and contribute significantly to the total economy of the Empire State. A substantial part of this business activity is generated by the Barge Canal. The committee hopes to obtain a more accurate appraisal of its impact on the economy.

Countless sportsmen other than boaters use the canal for fishing and hunting game birds and are interested in preserving the purity of its waters.

Many others own or rent cottages along the lakes and rivers of the canal. A number of these cottages stand on canal lands under revocable permits granted by the state.

The committee feels the rights of these users should also be cataloged. This problem relates to recreational users as well as industrial and commercial operators. While no inventory of these rights exists, it would be impossible for this committee to make recommendations on the question of a transfer.

Conservation.   The Barge Canal and its tributary waters make it one of the great natural resources of the state and their conservation is one of the critical problems of this generation. A study of the first progress report of the Temporary State Commission on Water Resources Planning (1960), entitled "Dynamic Planning - First Step in Water Resources Development for New York State", validates this statement. The Water Resources Law enacted in 1959 is a well-conceived effort for the long-range development of the water resources of the state. The principle underlying the efforts of all agencies connected with water problems is that all water planning should be on a multi-purpose basis. This is especially true of Barge Canal waters.

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