Much of Vermont’s energy history is written in our rivers. During industrialization, we built dams to harness the strength of flowing water to supply mechanical power for sawmills and gristmills. In later years, we built dams to generate electricity.
But with the abandonment of the water-driven mill industries long ago, hundreds of Vermont’s aging dams no longer serve a useful purpose. Instead, they sit idle in rivers and streams, creating public safety and environmental hazards without providing the benefits of electricity or flood control. They degrade water quality and aquatic habitat, restrict the movement of fish and other wildlife, and drive up costs in maintenance and liability.
Contrary to popular perception, there are very few opportunities for economically viable hydroelectric projects at existing dams. All but a few of the good, remaining sites were redeveloped in the 1980s or 1990s. The economics of developing a new hydroelectric project at other sites, without harming the river, are very challenging.
Since 1996, upwards of 30 unused dams have been removed from Vermont’s rivers and streams. Many of these were privately owned. If you or someone you know owns land that includes a dam, you have options.
Non profit conservation groups, including the Vermont Natural Resources Council, The Nature Conservancy, the Connecticut River Conservancy, several watershed organizations, and state and federal natural-resource agencies, can help. In certain situations, they can hire engineers and construction contractors, obtain permits, and manage dam removal projects from start to finish. Projects can often be completed with minimal cost to the owner.
For a dam that is in poor condition, removal is usually less costly than reconstructing or replacing the dam to modern dam safety standards.
A 2014 report by the Vermont Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers noted that 35 percent of the dams inspected by the State of Vermont in 2013 were in poor condition. About 200 of the state’s 800+ known dams are classified as having high or significant hazard potential, meaning that if they were to fail, extensive property damage and potentially the loss of lives could result. It’s not difficult to envision the large quantities of water released from a failing dam washing out culverts, roads; and driveways.
In 1947, a dam failure on East Creek in the town of Chittenden caused extensive damage all the way downstream to Rutland. About 300 homes and businesses were damaged and roads and rail lines were closed for several days. The U.S. Army was called in to help with the recovery.
There have been about 16 dam failures in Vermont since 1984. Fortunately, most were small and did not result in loss of life or extensive downstream damage. But as dams age without proper maintenance, their structural stability only declines.
The Vermont Natural Resources Council, with support and assistance from several partners including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy, is working with several landowners in the Lake Champlain basin on plans to remove decrepit dams to restore free-flowing streams and improve water quality and aquatic habitat. Most of these dams are classified by the state Dam Safety Program as “significant hazards,” meaning there is potential for loss of life and “appreciable” economic loss should they fail.
Vermont’s dams served an indispensable purpose fueling our earliest industrial efforts, and have created valuable hydroelectric plants and recreation spots in decades since. We should surely appreciate their might, and the benefits they gave us in previous generations.
But most dams now lie unused and unmaintained, and are more trouble than they are worth. We need to take seriously the removal of Vermont’s unused dams in order to improve the flow of our rivers, promote the health of our fish and wildlife, and ensure optimal flood resilience in a rapidly changing climate.
Brian Shupe is the executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.