What’s the future of the park’s 500+ dams?
By Zachary Matson
During the first quarter of the 1900s, state Conservation Commission leaders eyed the power potential of Adirondack rivers with intense interest, documenting scores of potential dam sites.
In nearly every decade that followed, a new proposal emerged for a large structure somewhere in the Adirondack Park to create power, to fill canals, or to quench thirst in growing cities.
If even a fraction of those ideas had come to fruition, the park would look markedly different. Newcomb would have drowned, the Oxbow section of Raquette River flooded. A huge, shallow lake would stretch south from Piseco. Vast reservoirs comparable to the Great Sacandaga impoundment would still water and restrict forest cover.
The average dam in New York is 86 years old, compared to the national average of 57 years, according to the 2022 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure produced by the American Society of Civil Engineers. “New York’s dams are significantly older than those across the rest of the United States and many of them were built before modern design standards,” the organization wrote. Adirondack dams are even older, nearly 90 years old on average.
But the fights of conservationists, the whims of politicians and the ebbs of industry turned the tides of history in another direction.
While the large dams were rejected, hundreds of small dams went up. Today many are in a state of gradual deterioration. They disrupt the flow of waters and quietly threaten public safety.
More to Explore
Compared to the Hoover Dam or the Moses-Saunders Power Dam on the St. Lawrence River, Adirondack dams almost fade into the background. Motorists might catch a quick glimpse of the concrete shoulders that shape the park’s physical and social landscape. They are intertwined in nearly every aspect of the region’s past: The earliest settlers built them to establish water supplies and power. Loggers constructed them to control flows and help move logs from remote forests to mills and markets.
“The dams were like a thousand valves in the great, gravity-fed, hydraulic wood-delivery machine that the Adirondack wilderness was becoming,” wrote journalist Paul Schneider.
Now, waterfront home values are tied to water being held in place; not by the laws of nature, but by the calculus of engineers.
Businesses, homes and public infrastructure sit within “inundation zones”—where dams are considered deficient according to soundness standards. State inspectors focus limited resources on the riskiest structures. Hundreds of others receive little or no oversight.
Even dams that pose negligible risk can alter ecosystems in the park’s wildest corners.
The Adirondack State Land Master Plan adopted the federal definition of wilderness as an “area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” It also allows for the maintenance of existing dams in those wild areas. But maintenance of such dams has been rare. Some have become piles of debris blocking remote channels, others have blown asunder in downpours.
As many of the region’s dams top 100 years in age, a recent surge in state and federal funding could rescue owners and local governments facing repairs, removals and the storms of a warming world. The new strategies of other states, often adopted after dam crises, offer ideas to improve the state’s program.
How we reported our series on Adirondack dams
There are over 500 dams spread across the Adirondack Park, varying in size, shape, purpose, repair needs and risk to public safety.
The Adirondack Explorer spent more than a year reporting on the safety of those dams and the role they play in shaping the social and physical landscape of the park.
Over the coming weeks, the Explorer will publish stories that examine the park’s riskiest dams, including those owned by towns reluctant to invest in needed repairs, explore backcountry structures slowly deteriorating in wilderness areas, and present solutions to improving dam safety drawn from the experiences of other states.
To write these stories, the Explorer filed information requests for the state Department of Environmental Conservation dam inventory, hundreds of inspection reports, engineering studies, inundation maps and safety plans. We compiled a database of those records, interviewed owners, examined court and property documents, visited structures across the park, spoke with national dam safety experts and discussed the state’s approach with DEC’s dam safety director.
Here are the stories to expect as we publish our dam series:
- An investigation into the owners of the park’s riskiest dams, those rated as high hazard and found to fall short of state standards;
- A look at three high hazard dams, showing the wide range of owners responsible for the important infrastructure;
- A story on the towns that own some of those high hazard structures and the costly challenge of maintaining them;
- A user-friendly version of the dams database, which readers can use to look up records for their local dam;
- An examination of backcountry dams, one of the few pre-existing structures allowed in Adirondack wilderness areas;
- A study of best practices from dam safety programs across the country;
- An explanation of how climate change will affect the future of dams.
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