by Brian T Fitzgerald We’re mid-stride through the summer and many Vermonters are drawn to our waterways. Our rivers provide visitors and residents alike with a bounty of recreational opportunities: swimming, fishing and boating. But, some Vermont rivers harbor unnecessary safety risks in the form of deadbeat dams that no longer serve any useful purpose. Built to power the mills of our industrial past, many of these small dams are no longer properly maintained and some have been abandoned. Worse still, we don’t even know where they all are! What we do know is that today Vermont has more than 1,000 dams with hundreds serving no useful purpose. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – unused dams not only pose a threat to recreationists, but block fish passage, degrade the health of our rivers and streams, and cause flooding when they fail without providing any benefits, such as flood protection or energy production.
That’s why I’m excited that five dams are scheduled to be removed across the state in the next three months. Twenty-one dams have been removed from our rivers in as many years, but five in one year is a record! These removal projects in East Burke, East Highgate, Dummerston, West Fairlee, and West Windsor are a significant step forward for Vermont. Hats off to the Connecticut River Conservancy, Northern Forest Canoe Trail, Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission, and the various state and federal agencies, private dam owners, and funders who have worked to make these removals happen.
Looking ahead, it’s clear Vermont has the opportunity to continue this good work to better protect our communities and valuable river habitats. Vermont Natural Resources Council, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others, is working to identify and prioritize dams in the Lake Champlain basin whose removal will not only provide greater public access for recreation, but also restore fish habitat, improve flood resilience, and make our rivers more healthy for all. Dam owners interested in removing dams on their property can learn more at freevtrivers.org.
However, to remove deadbeat dams, we first have to know where they are and what shape they’re in. Next winter, the Vermont Legislature will once again consider H.92, a bill that will make it possible to identify where dams are, require that they are inspected, and provide owners with the information they need to decide whether to maintain the dam so it’s safe or remove it. Call or email your elected officials to let them know you support H.92 and expect them to help safeguard the health and vitality of Vermont rivers for generations to come.
Brian Fitzgerald is Dam Project Coordinator at Vermont Natural Resources and coordinator of the Vermont Dam Task Force, a group dedicated to restoring Vermont’s rivers by removing or modifying dams.