Future Uncertain For Swanton Dam, A Local Landmark And Environmental Problem

Jul 28, 2016

As the Village of Swanton makes plans to renovate a historic dam in the center of town, village officials say outside forces - from state regulators to environmental activists - are spending more time pointing out problems than looking for solutions.

“The dam has been a staple of the community. I mean the kids swim behind it, it's been there for over 200 years,” says Chris Leach, a member of Swanton Village’s board of trustees.

Leach says the dam is more than just cement; it's part of the identity of Swanton itself.

“It was the reason Swanton's here, because that was the mechanism for all of the businesses,” he says. “The quarry, several other machine shops on the west side of the river.”

There's been a dam across the Missisquoi River in Swanton since the 1800s, when the flow of the river powered industry in town.

Now, it's just a dam. The industries it was built to power have disappeared.

The village is planning a project to make it useful again. Officials are working with a private developer to try to get approval to add small-scale hydroelectric generation to the dam.

“It seems to me like a win-win,” Leach says. “I mean, we get power, we get use of the river, the river isn't substantially changed, and we can somewhat improve the fish issue.”

But the "fish issue" is a major one. State officials and environmental advocates want the dam gone.

Eric Palmer, the director of fisheries for Vermont's Department of Fish and Wildlife, says the dam blocks fish from getting to key spawning habitats.

“The Swanton dam has been the highest dam on our list of potential removal projects because of the fact that it's the first barrier on the Missisquoi River coming up from Lake Champlain, and if it were removed, there's a large number of fish species that would be able to move up the river,” Palmer says.

Village officials say it’s not so simple.

Swanton residents polled by the village in 2010 and 2011 overwhelmingly supported keeping the dam. Leach says the trustees take their direction from the voters.

“You're not looking at a board that's just fighting to keep the dam for the sake of keeping the dam,” he says. “We believe this is a democracy. You convince our voters and they'll tell us what to do.”

Neal Speer, the president the board of trustees, doesn’t think Palmer or other opponents of the dam are in a position to say what should happen to the dam.

"We're listening to the people in our community. We're listening to the fisherman that have fished that river for all their lives, and there's not an issue with that dam as far as we can see." - Neal Speer, president of Swanton Village Board of Trustees

“It's their word against a thousand other words,” he says of critics of the renovation. “I mean, they're looking for anything to get us to say: 'Go ahead and remove that dam.' Sorry for my bluntness, but they have the resources to do the studies that will go against whatever we say. We're listening to the people in our community. We're listening to the fisherman that have fished that river for all their lives, and there's not an issue with that dam as far as we can see.”

And Leach says that if the dam is so bad, he wants to see data or studies, or really “anything but speculation” about the harm the dam is supposedly doing, and about how removing it would be any better.

James Ehlers, the executive director of Lake Champlain International, has been advocating for the dam’s removal for years.

“Either they're misrepresenting the issue to you or they have very poor memories,” Ehlers said of Leach’s request for data about environmental issues.

“They have been presented with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study that definitively quantified the seven and a half miles of spawning habitat that currently is beyond the reach of the fishery [because of the dam],” he said.

That study said that there are vastly more good spawning habitats for lake sturgeon and walleye upstream from the dam. If the fish could get up there, they'd have at least 99 percent more spawning habitat in the Missisquoi, the study indicated.

There could be more data about the dam's impact, but nobody wants to pay for it. State officials have said that Swanton needs to conduct the studies to answer key environmental questions if they want the project approved.

Village officials say the studies would be costly. Board President Neal Speer thinks that money could be better spent elsewhere.

“How many studies are each one of us going to do?” Speer says. “That's the trouble with things in the state of Vermont. Too many people do too many studies and nothing gets done. By the time the studies get done we could have an operational hydro project down there.”

Standing on a bridge overlooking the dam, Village Manager Reg Beliveau says he hopes to work through the deadlock between the village and critics with the help of Bill Scully, the developer working with the village on the project.

“There's arguments to any case, I guess,” Beliveau says. “And all I'm saying is once and for all, we get everybody to the table. I'm pretty sure the village has a guy that can get everybody together, have good civil conversations and make a project or not make a project.”

With emotions running high on both sides, getting everyone to the table will be an accomplishment on its own.