Sometime in the next five to seven years, New York will literally turn off a portion of Niagara Falls.
The process is called “dewatering” and as it turns out, it’s happened before. In 1969, the same section of the American Falls was dammed so engineers and researchers could study erosion of the bedrock. And not only was the process effective, it became its own sort of attraction: tourists surged by the thousand to get a glimpse of the usually submerged floor and 70-100 foot-tall stone cliff.
This round of dewatering needs to happen needs to happen so engineers with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation can scrap two 115-year-old bridges that have reached—well, exceeded—the end of their useful lives. The bridges cross the Niagara River above the American Falls, and were built to carry cars, trolleys, and pedestrians between the town of Niagara Falls and Goat Island, one of the prime viewing spots for both the American and Horseshoe falls.
The bridges, which in their current condition “provide an aesthetically unappealing experience for park visitors,” according to the State, will be replaced. There are three options: “a precast concrete arched design that closely resembles the current bridges, steel girder bridges that are simpler and more linear, and tied arch bridges with vertical cables supporting the surface from above.”
Turning off the water to the American portion of the falls is not as complicated (or as expensive) as one might think. Essentially, engineers will build a dam between the upstream tip of Goat Island and the US mainland. Made of boulders, gravel, and other landfill, the structure will slow water heading for the American Falls and divert it to Horseshoe Falls. The damming process is expected to cost about $3 million.
What about the wildlife, aquatic and otherwise, that make the falls their home?
Engineers are planning to ensure the dewatering wouldn’t affect water levels above Horseshoe, or adversely affect wildlife on the American Falls side, since there are relatively modest lengths of coastline there, and the massive waterfall isn’t home to any significant aquatic populations. Nevertheless, state scientists will monitor environmental impacts, both in terms of wildlife and the potential erosion of the nearby shorelines receiving the extra water.
The most fascinating part might be what will remain on the river bed when the water dries up. When the falls were shut down in 1969, crews found millions of coins and two human bodies. There’s no telling what the last 50 years have deposited.
What do you think—will you go visit the falls when New York turns them off?