Multiple projects near Lake Champlain could open migration
By Mike Lynch
For more than two centuries, dams have blocked salmon from migrating upstream on the lower Saranac River and reaching some of the best spawning habitat the river has to offer.
But that could change in the coming years, thanks to a series of projects planned for the river in the Plattsburgh area.
Imperial Mills Dam is slated to get a fish ladder, the remains of Indian Rapids dam are slated to be removed and so is the debris at Fredenburgh Falls.
If those projects are completed, and salmon are able to navigate an existing but untested fish ladder at Treadwell Mills dam, scientists believe the fish would be able to navigate upstream to historic spawning grounds all the way to Kent Falls. That area has dam but is also a natural barrier. It’s located near Cadyville, roughly 12 miles from Lake Champlain.
The spawning habitat between Treadwell Mills Dam and Kent Falls is considered preferable to that located downstream.
So these upgrades would be a big deal to fish biologists and anglers.
“We’re talking about 25 years after the Revolutionary War that salmon haven’t been able to get to Kent Falls,” said Dave Minkoff, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist.
It’s actually even before that.
Anglers sued Zephaniah Platt, the founder of Plattsburgh, for a dam he had built in 1786, according to a lawsuit decided in his favor in the state Supreme Court in 1819, 12 years after his death. The lawsuit had been brought by anglers trying to remove the dam because it impeded salmon from going upriver to spawn. So many salmon filled the river then, that during the fall spawning run horses would get spooked trying to cross the waterway, according to one state fisheries report from that period.
Imperial Mills Dam
In modern times, the key to the spawning success, or lack thereof, has been Imperial Mills Dam. The structure blocks spawning salmon from going upriver three miles from Lake Champlain and has been the subject of debate for decades.
Trout Unlimited and others, including the city of Plattsburgh in 2019, have pushed to have that dam removed because of the salmon issue and it is also structurally unsound.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has classified the dam as high hazard, meaning its failure could result in widespread damage and possible death. State inspectors have rated it as “unsound” for failing to meet state standards, according to the DEC dam inventory as of 2022.
But the calls to remove the dam have gone unanswered, and now that a fish ladder installation looks imminent, anglers are backing down.
“We looked at the overall situation and figured that the advantages of getting salmon above Imperial Mills Dam … was ultimately more beneficial than continuing to fight the fish ladder,” said Bill Wellman, of the Lake Champlain Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
Wellman was still critical of the state’s large investment in repairing the dam.
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Rivers and salmon series
A series of stories about the effect dams have had on two of the parks’ important rivers, the Boquet and the Saranac.
Dams have changed them, blocking the natural movement of fish for decades.
The first ladder was first proposed more than two decades ago under former Gov. George Pataki’s Clean Air/Clean Water Bond Act of 1996. Now that work, which is part of an estimated $12 million dam renovation, could start as early as this construction season. The department said about $1.5 million of the 1996 bond act will fund the dam work. The rest of the project is paid under New York Works.
The state of New York and a California-based development company called Main Mill Street Investments, share ownership of the dam. The DEC bought several acres next to the dam in the 1990s for the fish ladder.
Work started this spring to prepare the work area, and the goal is to start later this year, but the project likely wouldn’t be completed until 2025 or 2026, said DEC fish biologist Rob Fiorentino. The DEC is in the process of hiring a contractor to do the work.
As recently, as July 2020, the DEC said it planned to finish the project in 2023.
“We’re really excited that we’re finally about to break ground,” Fiorentino said. “It is a big deal, getting fish back up to their historic spawning grounds. It is certainly part of the goal when we’re looking to restore a wild population within the lake.”
The DEC, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation groups have been working for years to create a self-sustaining salmon population in the Lake Champlain watershed, with varying levels of success in other rivers in New York and Vermont. Native salmon were killed off from the watershed in the mid-1800s.
In addition to installing the fish ladder, DEC’s plan is to have two 30-foot round tanks below the dam. The tanks will hold juvenile salmon for three weeks in the spring before they are released. The tanks will have river water running through them, and allow the salmon to become conditioned to having the Saranac as their home river, so they will return there to spawn. A similar program has been taking place near the mouth of the river in recent years. The stocking program is one of several salmon research projects happening on the river.
The next obstacle upstream from Imperial Mills Dam are the remnants of Indian Rapids Dam. This structure was damaged in the middle of the 20th century. A 50-foot section of the former 150-foot wide dam is open in the middle, but scientists don’t believe fish can get through it.
“It’s like a giant fire hose,” said Tim Mihuc, director of Lake Champlain Research Institute. “It’d be very difficult for a fish to move through the current breach and that damage.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife, in collaboration with Trout Unlimited, plan to start field work in July to remove the spillway and powerhouse, with the goal of finishing by the end of the summer, said Minkoff. An abutment on the left, while looking downstream, and a wall just past the dam will remain in place until the groups gets additional funding.
That former dam is owned by New York State Energy and Gas company but the owner of Treadwell Mills Dam, Lower Saranac Hydro Partner LLC, has some responsibility there for fish passage through their Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license for Treadwell Mills Dam, Minkoff said.
Minkoff said he couldn’t release cost estimates for this project or one at Fredenburgh Falls because his agency was in the process of bidding the jobs. He did say the funding will come from Lower Saranac Hydro Partner LLC, Lake Champlain Basin Program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Fredenburgh Falls, a former dam site that is littered with debris, is about a half-mile upstream of Indian Rapids and 700 feet upstream of the Interstate 87 Bridge. Lower Saranac Hydro Partners received a notice of completed application from the DEC on May 17, for that project.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be working with Trout Unlimited to remove dam remnants, including pieces of cement and steel and wooden timbers pinned to the bottom of the river. The goal is to also finish that project this summer.
Treadwell Mills Dam
About a mile from Fredenburgh Falls and six miles from Lake Champlain, is Treadwell Mills Dam.
It has a fish ladder installed as part of a FERC license several decades ago.
“However, it’s never been tested with live fish because there hasn’t been fish to make it up there because they’ve been stopped at Imperial Mills,” Minkoff said.
Minkoff said there is good salmon spawning habitat above Treadwell Mills Dam, which is six miles to Kent Falls.
If they can get to this area by 2025, or the following years, it will be the first time fish have migrated there in centuries.
“This is great news for the restoration of Atlantic salmon,” Wellman said. “There used to be so damn many salmon you could load up a buckboard in the middle of a stream in the 1800s.”