Four Vermont environmental groups are teaming up to formally oppose the renovation of a dam in Swanton.
The Vermont Natural Resources Council, Lake Champlain International, the Vermont chapter of The Nature Conservancy and the Vermont council of Trout Unlimited all oppose the renovation on environmental grounds. They say the dam should be removed instead.
The Village of Swanton filed for a preliminary permit for the renovations with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and the four environmental groups filed a joint comment with the commission on Monday opposing the permit.
“This is important enough that we need to signal as a coalition to FERC and to the village that: Don’t go in this direction,” said Jon Groveman the policy and water program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC).
The four groups, in the joint comments to FERC, say removing the dam could help restore fish spawning grounds upstream from the dam.
“For over 200 years, the Swanton Dam and earlier dams at this site have blocked fish passage to upriver spawning habitat, and they are believed to have been instrumental in the decline of fisheries of the Missisquoi River and Lake Champlain,” the groups said in the comment.
The environmental groups are largely focused on having the dam removed so that fish can travel up the river past the current location for the dam, and also maintaining downstream habitats that can sometimes dry up in periods of low river flow because the dam leaks, diverting water away from those habitats.
Groveman says there are other reasons for Swanton to remove the dam too.
“If the dam were to come out, there would be enhanced recreation opportunities in the village,” Groveman said in an interview Monday. “We think the fishery – if you have a Salmon run, if you have Walleye and Sturgeon returning in numbers, if you restore the habitat – that would be a boon to Swanton, to Northwest Vermont, to tourism as well as the ecology.”
Swanton Village Manager Reg Beliveau said in an interview last week that the village wants to make the dam an educational experience for visitors as well, including small-scale solar and wind generation on site as well. He said efforts by environmental groups to get media attention on the dam are counterproductive.
"We’ve always said that if they would work as hard with us as they have against us, we would have a viable project long before now," Beliveau said last week.
The environmental groups, however, are more interested in having the dam removed than in helping with plans to renovate it.
The FERC permit in question is a preliminary one, and the village would need multiple state and federal permits before the renovation would be allowed. Groveman said the environmental coalition is hoping to use their collective clout bring an end to the renovation idea before a long and complex legal saga.
“It’s basically saying: ‘This is the type of situation where out of the gate, you shouldn’t even allow this to go forward into the next phase because there are so many problems,’” Groveman said. “And FERC has the authority to do that.”