More than 1,200 dams hold up rivers, creeks and streams across Vermont. Some, built over a century ago, are relics of another time when Vermont ran on mills, logging and small-scale hydro power.
Currently only 80 of the state's dams are actively used for hydropower or flood control. Far more are no longer serving any purpose at all. About 200 of these so-called “deadbeat dams” are, to critics, deteriorating and reducing habitat for fish and hampering recreational activities for humans.
Now the Nature Conservancy of Vermont has developed a statewide map ranking and prioritizing which dams are causing the most harm, with the aim of advocating for their removal.
“They vary in size and scale. Some are across rivers as large as the Connecticut, others are found on our small rivers and streams,” says Heather Furman, the state director for the Nature Conservancy of Vermont.
“They don't manage flood waters as he said they don't produce any hydro power. And today these dams are posing safety hazards.”
Furman says these derelict dams cost communities money to upkeep, and they impede the water flow causing problems for fish and other species living in aquatic habitats.
The dams are largely on private property, and Furman says sometimes the landowners don’t even realize they own the dam if it was built before they purchased the land. In that case the cost of removing a dam falls on the private property owner. But Furman says there are funding sources available to support a dam removal project.
First to go
Furman says the Nature Conservancy, in partnership with Vermont Fish and Wildlife, is working on a detailed, data-supported map that ranks which dams are causing the most harm.
“We use things like the length of river that can be opened up for fish spawning, the presence of rare fish such as Lake Sturgeon, and the conditions of river shore habitat to prioritize which dams, if removed, could have the most positive impact for our communities and for our rivers,” says Furman.
Furman says her organization is working with partners to remove the Sargent-Osgood-Roundy dam in Randolph. This summer the Nature Conservancy of Vermont has been going through a permitting process to have that dam removed.
Furman says at 6 feet high the dam is relatively small, “but once it’s removed it will open up 88 miles of fish passage in the White River. So it's a really exciting project that has a huge conservation impact.”
Furman says the Swanton dam on the Missisquoi River is one of the highest priority dams her organization has identified in the state.
She says removing the dam would bring benefits for the downtown, as well as for water quality.
“When we talk about water quality and dams, we’re primarily talking about temperature. We know that we want to keep an even temperature in our rivers for fish and for habitat,” says Furman.
And Furman says the removal of the Swanton dam would support the recovery of a threatened species like Lake Sturgeon, which historically used to breed in the tributaries above the dam. And game fish like walleye would also benefit.
“It's an incredible opportunity for Swanton to re-imagine its downtown, to revitalize that downtown in a way that provides recreation and boating access to the river,” says Furman.
Furman says the dam prioritization map is a tool that can be useful for communities across Vermont.
“But it's really important for us to be able to go into communities and have these conversations with select board and planning commissions about how the dam is serving the community today, and what the benefits might be for removal,” she says.
Furman says it’s important for Vermont to consider what additional benefits these rivers could be providing for both the environment and communities across the state.
“This isn't a mandate to remove dams,” she says. “And it's certainly not a mandate to remove all dams. But it is an opportunity to have these conversations about how the dam is serving the community today.”