The Village of Swanton has ambitious plans to redevelop an old dam across the Missisquoi River as a hydroelectric facility, but environmental groups say the dam is threatening the downstream ecosystem and should be removed.
Swanton Village Manager Reg Beliveau said that after he got a letter from the state warning about environmental issues with the dam, the village began working with the North Bennington company Recurrent Hydro on plans to improve it.
“The hope is that we can put hydro back on there,” Beliveau said.
The village’s plans don’t stop there.
“Our hope is that this developer, too, has actually captured our vision that we would like to make that facility into a learning center so we could work with the area schools and colleges to show renewable hydro, and then also probably put a small solar panel and small wind turbine that captures river currents that generate wind, and show those three renewable energy possibilities – so make it a productive hydro facility as well as a learning center,” Beliveau said.
Environmental groups such as the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC) and Lake Champlain International are skeptical of the plan, and they would rather see the dam demolished.
“It’s literally falling apart,” said James Ehlers, the executive director of Lake Champlain International. “It’s an ecological liability as well as an economic liability.”
The main environmental threat the dam poses is a result of the village failing to properly maintain the dam, Ehlers says.
“It’s in disrepair,” he says. “It’s leaking, and under low flows that prevents the majority of the water staying in the channel as necessary. The bottom line is, the dam itself is falling down, and they are aware of this issue; they’ve received several notifications from the state requesting that they fix this sluice gate in order to prevent further damage to species downstream, but they continue to ignore the requests of fish and wildlife scientists.”
The sluice gate in question doesn’t stop the flow of water as it should. As a result, low river flows can mean so much water flows through the broken gate that it stops flowing over the top of the dam, and areas below get no water at all.
Beliveau, the village manager, takes issue with the accusation that the village isn’t being a responsible environmental steward, and denies that village officials are ignoring authorities.
“After the letter was produced last year, we started doing some investigation into, ‘How can we improve this area? How can we fix this?’” he says, “and this is when we got introduced to Bill Scully [at Recurrent Hydro], so we signed the RFP and it’s in the developer’s hands.”
Beliveau said the project has a “preliminary permit” with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“So we did pursue what the state wanted us to do, we contacted this developer and they’re helping us with that, so it’s in their hands,” he says.
Beliveau said a timeline for the improvements will become more clear as the project moves through the permitting process, including state-level approval for the development.
Beliveau voiced frustration that environmental advocates bring media attention to the issues in Swanton instead of working cooperatively with village officials to solve the problems (VPR began reporting this story after Ehlers raised concerns about low flow levels in the river in early July).
“It just concerns the village that these people go to local media and start throwing stones at the village rather than coming to us and offering their assistance with us to help make a project,” he says. “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. We would have good fish passage, we would have a project that everybody would be proud of and we could have a good marriage with our aquatic life, our natural resources and that dam. So that’s always [been] our concern: Why are they working so hard against us when we could work so much better together?”
But environmental groups have approached the village offering solutions.
A letter dated Jan. 18, 2010 from the president of Lake Champlain International to Swanton officials says that LCI would like to meet with the village “on the issue of LCI’s interest in acquiring the rights to the Swanton Dam” in order to remove it.
“As you are aware,” the letter says, “the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and others are advocating for the removal of the Swanton Dam because it is a detriment to the health of the lake and, among other things, blocks fish runs that once passed from Lake Champlain to the spawning habitat below Highgate Falls.”
Village officials never responded to the letter, Ehlers says, nor was the proposal of selling the dam brought before voters.
“I don’t remember that,” Beliveau says.
Even in its current state of disrepair, Beliveau says the dam is an asset to the Village of Swanton.
“I mean, we’ve had barbecues, community events down there and the dam provides some nice aesthetics, it provides nice sound – water cascading over the dam – deadening the traffic noise, and makes a nice gathering point,” Beliveau said.
Despite the fact that most environmental concerns have to do with low water levels downstream – not upstream – from the dam, Beliveau also said said the environmental issues related to low flows wouldn’t be improved if the dam was removed.
“The dam itself is probably eight, nine feet tall. You take that dam down and now you’ve lowered the river levels eight, nine feet. How is that going to benefit the aquatic life?” he said.