Work got underway this week on the demolition of the Dufresne Dam on the Battenkill in Manchester.
Fish and Wildlife officials say the dam has impeded fish migration for more than a century on Vermont’s most famous wild trout stream.
The Dufresne Dam once powered a sawmill, but the state has owned the property since the 1950’s. The Department of Fish and Wildlife has maintained the dam and kept the pond behind it open for recreational use.
Soon this upper stretch of the Battenkill’s main stem will become a free-flowing river once again.
Brian Fitzgerald monitors stream flow for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. He watches as a yellow excavator digs up silt and debris around the concrete dam.
“This area through here is where the river channel was originally before the dam was built,” he says. “So we’re going to return the river to that area. We’re going to dig right through the dam.”
Once the river is flowing in its original channel the rest of the dam structure will be removed.
The demolition project was set in motion in 2005, when the state identified structural problems in the dam.
After considering alternatives, the state decided it would be cheaper to remove it than to do the necessary repairs.
The demolition also has ecological benefits, Fitzgerald says. He says removing the dam will help keep the river cooler. Trout need cool, oxygen-rich water to survive.
Also watching the work is State Representative David Deen, who chairs the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee.
Deen spent many years as a fishing guide. He says every angler who visits Vermont wants to fish the Battenkill because of its legendary wild brown and brook trout.
He says the dam has long blocked trout from their natural spawning grounds near the river’s headwaters.
“Brook trout, brown trout will move as much as 16 miles from their holding water where they feed and grow into spawning aged fish,” Deen explains. “And then they’ll migrate into the smaller tributaries like this one. So they come up the main stem of the Battenkill and work their way up this river, and up until this month, they stopped right here.”
Deen thinks many more fish will spawn if they can reach the river’s gravelly headwaters.
Scientists started noticing a decline in trout on the Battenkill a decade or so ago.
State fisheries biologist Ken Cox has been part of an effort to restore the river’s natural habitat. He says fish numbers have been rising. Removing the dam, Cox says, should help that effort.
“With the predictions of climate change” he says, “These headwaters, where you’re going to have cooler water, fish are going to need to access those.”
Brian Fitzgerald says some local residents objected to the loss of Dufresne Pond. But he says the state will keep the area open for recreation. And he thinks people will also enjoy the free flowing river.