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Crews battle worst Niagara River ice jams in more than 20 years

Work around-the-clock to keep Niagara Power Project running smoothly

Updated: 03/17/08 8:12 AM

Terry Wendel, left, captain of the William H. Latham, and Doug Harding, general maintenance superintendent for the Niagara Power Project, put in a tour of duty on the deck of the icebreaker.

When Western New York gets a windy winter, the crews of the William H. Latham get busy.

For part of this winter, the boat has operated in “all hands on deck” mode as it tackles its responsibility to chisel out the water intakes of the Niagara Power Project.

This season, chunks of heavy “lake ice,” often more than a dozen feet thick, helped create the worst ice jams on the Niagara River in more than 20 years, State Power Authority officials said.

When the Lake Erie water level spiked 10 feet as a result of a late- January storm, threatening electricity generation downstream, the crews barely had time to catch their breath.

“These guys were dealing with that for almost a month, almost 24 hours a day,” said Doug Harding, general maintenance superintendent at the power project.

Sustained high water levels caused by winds exceeding 60 mph pushed large blocks of ice over the ice boom, the all-steel barrier placed across the Niagara River upstream from the Peace Bridge to limit the amount of ice that passes.

Equipped with twin diesel engines and an underwater “ice knife,” the flat-bottomed, 61z-foot William H. Latham can look like a tugboat playing bumper cars with the ice chunks.

But the vessel’s tasks and tactics can vary depending on the type of ice causing problems, such as:

• River ice, also called “sheet ice,” generally 2 to 10 inches thick, floats near the surface and often passes by the power project intakes in Niagara Falls. It also may stack up, causing larger formations.

• Lake ice, the thickest type, forms blocks that often lodge themselves in shallow parts of the upper river near the intakes. It can be up to 20 feet thick.

• Frazil ice consists of ice crystals that form an entire water column and stick to any surface, including rocks along the bottom of the river. Also called “anchor ice,” it develops under specific conditions and did not form this season, authority officials said.

Frazil ice, which forms as the river freezes, is difficult to deal with, said Terry Wendel, the Latham’s captain since 1990 as well as a mechanic and welder at the power project. During most of his career, Wendel has spent winters on the authority’s ice breaker.

Add some wet snow to the river when it starts to freeze, and the Latham’s crew finds itself stuck in slush.

“You drive through it, and it just collapses behind you, and you can’t move it,” Wendel said.

“The best way to describe it is like driving through a snow cone,” Harding said.

The Latham’s three-person crews aren’t always battling the frozen river alone. Their counterparts from Ontario Power Generation have their own ice breaker.

Crews on the U.S. side of the river tend to have a harder time, since prevailing winds from the south and southwest push ice toward the Power Authority’s intakes.

But the two sides share some of the burden, since both operate under the orders of the International Joint Commission, the binational body that governs the boundary waters.

The crews often help each other in clearing ice from both sides of the river.

The Power Authority has another option for preventing ice jams: It can divert less water to its plant, which raises water levels and allows more ice to flow past the intakes.

Authority officials call that “flushing,” or “wasting,” since water that could be used to produce electricity is sent over the falls.

The intakes at the Niagara Power Project, the state’s largest hydroelectric generation facility, divert river water through underground channels to the two generating plants, where it powers turbines to create electricity before being released back into the Lower Niagara River.

When river conditions prevent the project from generating enough low-cost electricity to fulfill its contracts, the authority has to buy more-expensive power elsewhere on the market.

The ice boom, authority officials are quick to point out, is not designed to stop all ice from heading down the river.

The boom itself broke several times this year, but even without breaks, ice can bypass it, Harding said.

Officials did not anticipate much more work this season for their ice breaker but would not rule it out if Western New York winter strikes again.