The Columbia Canal was built in the early 19C. But when the railroads came well before the Civil War, the canal was obsolete. Bypassing the rapids at the fall line was no longer a challenge.
Today, the canal is serving new purposes and is facing a new obsolescence. At its south end, the canal runs through hydroelectric turbines and generates more than $1,000,000 worth of electric power annually. At the north end, the diversion dam establishes a rowing crew’s ideal broad practice surface, which attracts rowing teams from the northeast every early spring.
The 3.5 miles of canal parallels 3.5 miles of paved tree–lined path.
The path is one of Columbia’s unique jewels in its crown of amenities. For most of the length of the path, there are trees and there are more trees. Plenty of the trees have a two to three foot diameter, and those grand trees are the tallest with the most expansive shadows. Then there are the small trees, the ones with less than a foot in diameter, and there are plenty of the one foot wide trunks growing on the bank of the canal, the west–facing side.
The root systems of the trees threaten the structural integrity of the canal’s west bank. The roots penetrate the bank, creating little seep holes in some cases. City officials report there are at least nine spots of found leaks for the canal’s full length. To cut down the trees is to cut down on the root–led opportunities to leak. But the appearances would end up dramatically different.
The trees, big and small, sit on the west side of the canal and the west side of the path, protecting the runners and walkers from the afternoon sun by casting shade back to the path. In the winter time, the deciduous trees shed their leaves and allow the sun’s warm glow to cut through.
If people like it, then the birds love it. Local tree preservationists and path walkers connect with naturalists to note the canal path, and its westside trees make for a major bird–migration corridor.
On the other hand, to be a preservation purists, to maintain the canal as it was originally envisioned is to cut all the trees. That’s how it looked upon completion in the early 19C. And that should guarantee the integrity of the canal bank, at least at first and at least up to a point.
To cut the west bank’s trees is to kill their root systems, which opens a whole new can of worms and challenges to the canal’s future. When the roots die and rot, they leave behind elongated voids perfectly suitable for water flow, for leaks that eventually erode the canal bank. The dead roots are no longer the threads that hold the canal bank’s fabric together.
The middle ground may be under way. In 2008, according to former mayoral candidate Sparkle Clark, contracts with the city were let out to begin a 19–year remediation cycle that includes cutting all the trees on the west bank with less than one foot in diameter. Some city sources say the cutting is for 18–inch diameters and under instead of the one–foot rule.
Either way, the tree cutting is generating controversy. One alternative suggested by the tree preservationist Columbia lawyer and developer Jimmy Knight is to line the bottom and the west inside surface of the canal with impervious and permanent material, stopping leaks for all time regardless of what happens to the tree roots.
The logic behind not cutting anything of larger diameter sounds like emotion avoidance. To cut the really grand trees, the tall jobs with trunks diameters near the ground of three feet, say, is to draw more emotion than any dedicated civil servant or elected official can handle.
As of the past week, the whole project is on hold while the city decides what to do and while Knight and his forces follow through with their Freedom of Information Act pursuits. John Dooley, the city’s head utilities type, has said that no trees would be cut without approval from city council.
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