When it was last relicensed, the owners of Treadwell Mills dam on the Saranac River put in a fish ladder so salmon could get through. The ladder, which looks like a wet wheelchair ramp for fish to swim up, has never been used, though, because salmon still can’t get past Imperial Mills.
The Lake Champlain Chapter of Trout Unlimited was formed at the foot of the Imperial Mills Dam after Don Lee and some other anglers started catching a fish they hadn’t seen there before—salmon.
“It was like a big secret,” Lee said. “We didn’t want to tell anybody we were catching these Atlantic salmon.” Those were salmon the state and federal government had begun reintroducing back in the 1970s. Everyone hoped to have them swimming back up the Saranac in a matter of years. The Imperial Mills Dam has always stood in their way.
Now, the Trout Unlimited chapter is one of the few independent groups that keeps an eye on the whole Saranac. The advocacy group is already involved in the relicensing process for the dams at Franklin and Union Falls.
But as one of its members, Bill Wellman, put it in a letter to his colleagues last spring, the Imperial Mills Dam is the group’s real bête noire—a dam that he claims serves “no purpose other than to irritate the hell out of me and other anglers in the area.”
In recent years, the dam has become not just an obstacle for fish but the object in what seems like an endless bureaucratic comedy of errors. At one point the state had a plan to put in a fish ladder to help salmon get over the dam. Then the state found problems with the dam. So it wanted to lower it. Then the dam was sold to Main Mill Street Investments, a California-based company that owns an adjacent industrial park and wants to keep the dam at its current height so it can use the dam to generate electricity.
Along the way, DEC spent $1 million on consultant fees trying to figure out how to make one plan work, then went back to the drawing board after a dispute with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has some say over changes affecting wetlands.
This summer, DEC rolled out a $6 million plan that would keep the dam standing, make it safer and add a fish ladder—essentially returning to an idea that Trout Unlimited had pushed for two decades ago.
Local anglers and government officials, including Plattsburgh’s mayor, now think the state is not only wasting its money but subsidizing Main Mill Street.
Joel Herm, a New York energy developer who is working to turn the dam back into an energy-generating facility, said he couldn’t generate power on the property without state subsidies.
“If I had to pay for half the fish ladder, I can’t do the hydro facility,” Herm said. “It wouldn’t make economic sense.”
To complicate matters, the state’s legal team has been unsure who owns how much of the dam, though the DEC concluded it is responsible for ensuring safety. Trout Unlimited, impatient after years of what it considers glacial inaction, no longer supports a fish ladder. It wants the dam gone.
DEC argues that building a fish ladder is cheaper and makes more sense than removing the dam, which it estimates could cost $30 million.
The wait for salmon continues.
Editor’s note: This is part of a larger story about dams on the Saranac River. READ IT HERE
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