By CAROLINE MURRAY
More than a century ago, eight movable dam structures were installed along the Mohawk River, expanding the Erie Canal system and allowing vessels to navigate through shallow waters.
As summer sweeps across the Mohawk Valley Region, thousands of boaters will pass through these dams without a second thought about their place, purpose or history.
At Amsterdam's Lock E-11, $40 million worth of construction is under way, to help with new resiliency measures and rehabilitation work.
"What's unique about Lock-11, and where we are today, is there are several different pieces of the puzzle happening at once," said Shane Mahar, a spokesperson for the state's Thruway Authority and Canal Corporation. "There is some ongoing flood recovery work from the effects of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, there is the mitigation work which is the 'beefing up' of the movable dam structures ... plus you got a general maintenance rehabilitation."
The four year project will entirely transform the structure -- from the concrete piers stationed below the embankment, to the abutment steel spans that criss-cross and arch over the upper and lower gates -- the antique lock is undergoing a much needed upgrade since its installation.
In addition to the mitigation and rehabilitation work, Mahar said the authority will install a flood warning system, as well as rehabilitate Guy Park Manor, which sits adjacent to the dam.
Both the site and Lock E-11 were devastated by Hurricane Irene, along with several other locks from Scotia to Fort Plain.
With a mitigation plan in place, the Thruway Authority and Canal Corporation hope to be more prepared if another crisis ensues.
Mahar said before Hurricane Irene hit, the National Weather Service predicted the Capital Region would receive close to an inch of rain. Based on this knowledge, Mahar said the lock engineers and hydrologists made the decision to leave all the movable dams in the river.
"That was a decision that was made at 5 o'clock on a Saturday," Mahar said. "In the overnight hours, history obviously changed."
As weather patterns switched gears, and the storm struck Montgomery County, the river's water levels began to rise dramatically.
Under heavier flows, Mahar said lifting movable dams is a risky operation, and could potentially affect other surrounding locks if not timed correctly. If one movable dam is raised during a storm, another could be severely inundated with water.
"It has to be done strategically and sequentially," Mahar said.
As a result of the hurricane, several of the locks were damaged, but none failed, Mahar said.
However, Guy Park Manor was partially submerged under water, and Lock 11 suffered extensive damage to its structural steel components and gears.
After both the hurricane and Tropical Storm Lee passed through in a matter of days, Mahar said the Canal Corporation and Thruway Authority devised a plan to make the locks more durable in preparation for another storm.
"Lesson learned coming out of the hurricane," Mahar said. "We have done now a couple years worth of debrief, history and engineering studies to try to figure out how to fix all this, and how to prevent all of this in the future."
Hence, the $28 million mitigation work that is currently taking place at all of the locks along the Mohawk River.
Some locks have been completed already, Mahar said the entire project is about 50 percent done.
On Tuesday, he stood on the catwalk of Lock-11, admiring the 100-year-old structure as construction workers operated heavy machinery.
Mahar said between the mitigation work, rehabilitation and flood warning system, the project adds up to $40 million -- a figure split between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Thruway Authority.
Kubricky Construction, a subsidiary of D.A. Collins Co., is currently executing the early phases of Lock 11's transformation.
The construction company is busy building a coffer dam, or temporary dam, below the existing structure. The coffer dam is made out of a series of circular metal wings that are filled with heavy soil.
The temporary dam blocks off a section of the water, because in order for construction workers and their equipment to stand on the bed of the river, and fix the lock from the ground up, the coffer dam will be drained.
As part of both the mitigation and rehabilitation work, Mahar said Kubricky will install new strong steel up-rights, new steel gates, chains and two new mules (the dam's engines), making each component stronger.
Mahar said this will help to lift the movable dams out of the water when significant weather events surface, which is not possible with the dam's current old equipment.
"So the water can return to its more natural state," he said.
In addition to the tangible work, Mahar said they also have a new protocol in place.
When a ten-year-or-greater weather event is predicted, the organizations will work to lift the dams out of the river in advance. Mahar said the new components will help synchronize the process across all the locks, and speed up the system.
Project engineer Kevin Mainello said he just completed mitigation work at Lock E-13, a movable dam in Randall.
Mainello sat at his desk Tuesday as Kubricky workers carried out some of the components of the coffer dam project.
Mainello said Lock 13 was supposed to be a three year project, but finished a year later due to Hurricane Irene.
He voiced similar concerns in regard to Lock 11. He said high water events are always a concern when it comes to lock rehabilitation and mitigation work.
As the project progresses, Mainello said all storm events are closely monitored.
Mainello said there was a high water event that took place June 13 and caused the water levels to increase a foot over the dam at Lock 11.
Because of the rain storm, Mainello said they closed down construction for the weekend.
The rain storm also caused a slew of debris to gather at the base of the dam; added work for crews to clean up.
"Water work is a lot different, it is much more challenging," Mainello said. "Everything is a little slower, you have to work against the current."
Mainello said construction was up and running again by the early start of the week.
He said the rehabilitation work includes a brand new paint job. A photo of the recently upgraded Lock E-13 hangs on the wall of his office, complete with bright green, blue and yellow paint -- a foreshadowing of what Lock E-11 will look like once it is complete.
Chief lock operator Nick Bottisti stood in front of the lock Tuesday. He said he has operated four different locks, working a total of 15 years for the authority and corporation.
He witnesses several thousand boats pass through the Mohawk River and through the lock.
He is one of many employees who will witness the transformation of Lock E-11, too.
As project engineer, Mainello said every dam and every day is a different experience, but the reward is worth the wait.
"Everyday there is a different twist to it," Mainello said. "It is interesting."