080213 ICE BREAKER

080213 ICE BREAKER - NG/FEB DOUG BENZ/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. - Ontario Power Generation� Niagara Queen II works in the river, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008.

The wicked wind storm on Jan. 30 did more than tear the roof off a Bank of America on Third Street.

It also broke two spans on the Lake Erie ice boom, causing ice floes down the Niagara River so heavy they’re rarely seen.

“That stoppage we had of ice that started on Jan. 30 is quite unusual, to have ice go from shore to shore on each bank of the river,” said Norm Stessing, director of operations for the Niagara Power Project.

Heavy ice floes are an unwelcome visitor for employees at the power project — which is run by the New York Power Authority. The power authority generates huge amounts of electricity from water flowing down the river, sharing both the profits and losses with its Canadian counterpart, the Ontario Power Authority.

But when the mini-glaciers from Lake Erie make it to the river, they clog the power project water intakes off the Robert Moses Parkway and put a significant dent in the power generation.

“There have been times the last two weeks our output has been down to 25 percent of our normal output,” Stessing said.

On Jan. 30, water levels rose nearly 10 feet in three hours, transporting huge amounts of ice over the falls, Stessing said. But when the winds died down and water levels returned to normal, the large ice blocks settled down and stayed there, clogging the intakes.

Enter the William H. Latham, the 62-foot long, 625-horsepower ice breaker boat commissioned in 1987 by the New York Power Authority for exactly this kind of situation. The Latham, along with the smaller, similar boat run by the Ontario Power Authority, is one of the tools used by the power authority to break up the ice and send it down the river.

Two three-man crews have been alternating 12-hour shifts almost continuously since the Jan. 30 storm on the Latham, using an underwater ice blade which propels through the ice and splits it, said Doug Harding, general maintenance superintendent for the power project.

That’s more work than either Stessing or Harding could remember in recent history. The last ice floe comparable to this year’s happened in 1985, Stessing said.

The boats work together to try and break up ice wherever it congregates on the river, though it’s usually on the U.S. shore because of the direction the winds blow, Stessing said.

The boats are one of two ways to deal with the heavy ice floes. Power project officials can also reduce its water diversions, raising the water level in front of the intakes to force ice blocks to move down the river.

When the power authority cannot produce its normal levels of power it must purchase it, Stessing said. The power authority has contracts with numerous firms to provide power.

“So depending on market prices, it will hurt us,” Stessing said.

All of the ice could be cleared by today and the ice boom has been fixed, said New York Power Authority Spokesman Michael Saltzman.

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