Good Question: Where does the canal water go during winter?

Brennan Somers
Updated: January 20, 2020 08:51 AM
Created: January 20, 2020 08:25 AM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — It's one of the oldest and most famous attractions we have — the Erie Canal. If you pass by it now, you won't see a lot of water in it.


What happens to it during the winter?

News10NBC’s Brennan Somers was asked to get some answers for this week's Good Question.

A viewer named John wanted to know two things: How do they drain the canal in the offseason? And where does the water go?

The main section of the Erie Canal spans nearly 340 miles and it stretches from Buffalo to Albany.

If you want to travel the whole thing, you should give yourself five days to cruise along. Of course, that’s only during the spring, summer, and fall. The canal sits mostly empty all winter.

We spoke to Ambrose Barbuto, a canal engineer for the state. He walked Brennan through what happens when they drain the canal during the offseason specifically around Rochester.

“Most of the water that feeds that western part the state comes either from Lake Erie or the Genesee River,” said Barbuto. “So what we do in the winter when we want to lower the level, we have large structures called guard gates that you can lower and that basically cut off the feed of water.”

There's a gate out near Lockport that cuts off water from Lake Erie. There are two more in our area, one on each side of the Genesee River.

They also use different drain setups to flush out the water along the canal. Some of it goes east to Wayne County.

“Whenever the water goes out, it's back into the wild, so to speak, back into the environment, back in smaller rivers that are offshoots?” asked Brennan.

“Correct,” added Barbuto. “We monitor it so that we're not suddenly sending this deluge of water down these small creeks and rivers, so it’s definitely controlled.”

Crews have to drain the canal because they need inspections to see what work needs to be done. The process also lowers the risk of issues with a leak or breach.

It takes them about a week to drain and another week to refill the canal. They usually flush it out in early November then fill it back up in April.

If you have a question you'd like answered, send Brennan an email at

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