Nature Conservancy finds thousands of barriers to Lake Champlain
By Zachary Matson
The dam behind the Reber Volunteer Fire Department near Willsboro is so small it’s not counted on the state’s inventory of over 500 Adirondack dams, but removing it could potentially restore six miles of Atlantic salmon spawning habitat.
The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan to remove the structure in September, part of a larger effort to restore stream connectivity throughout the Boquet River watershed and entire Lake Champlain basin.
Removing barriers like dams and replacing undersized culverts extend important fish habitat and clear paths to cooler headwater streams that could be a last refuge for native brook trout and salmon.
A Nature Conservancy project to map stream barriers across New York’s Lake Champlain watershed – and its over 5,000 miles of stream in five counties – shows that 51% of surveyed road/stream crossings were “moderate to severe barriers to aquatic organism passage.”
The dam behind the Reber fire hall interrupts Cold Brook just north of the bridge on Sunset Drive. The roughly 12-foot-wide dam, thought to be built in the late-1800s or early-1900s by a mill operation, rises about four feet above the stream bed, creating a sheer cascade too steep for migratory fish to pass.
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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 fire department has traditionally used the backwater as a water source to fill its tanks. A dry hydrant will remain at the site, and the project leaders plan to install two new dry hydrant locations in other areas of the department’s coverage area.
“It will ensure that there will be improvements to local ecosystems as well as improvements for the local community,” said Dave Minkoff, a USFW fish biologist based in Vermont.
Cold Brook originates on Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain and flows south into the Boquet River, one of the first major tributaries reached by a fish traveling upstream from the lake. The dam sits about a quarter mile upstream of where the brook meets the Boquet.
As the wildlife service works to restore Atlantic salmon populations on the river, testing a variety of hatchery and stocking strategies, removing the dam could extend the type of habitat salmon seek for reproduction up Cold Brook by at least six miles.
“Having connectivity to colder headwaters is going to be a critical piece,” said Josh LaFountain, freshwater project coordinator with The Nature Conservancy in the Adirondacks.
The project serves a larger effort to improve stream habitat and replace undersized culverts with ones designed for aquatic organism passage. The undersized culverts also pose hazards during heavy rainstorms and floods.
The Essex County Water and Soil Conservation District and the Adirondack Land Trust are working on Cold Brook to establish upstream conservation easements to protect riparian buffers, restricting shoreline agricultural practices and restoring habitat with new plantings. Essex County plans to replace a culvert and bridge crossing upstream of the dam site and The Nature Conservancy has identified other culverts in need of replacement, LaFountain said.
The Conservancy’s “barrier assessment tool” provides a comprehensive analysis of potential stream barriers in a large swath of the Adirondacks – the lakes, rivers and streams that flow into Lake Champlain.
The mapping tool attempts to prioritize the watershed’s 4,200 road/stream crossings. Another 179 dams were estimated to “further act to fragment stream networks,” according to the analysis. Over 40% of the stream crossings had been assessed as of October 2020, and over half of those were found to create potential barriers to aquatic passage.
The Conservancy has been working to prioritize the Reber dam removal in concert with the fire department, town officials, road crews and others with an interest in the project. Conservationists emphasized the importance of addressing community needs when pursuing a removal project.
“There’s a lot of moving pieces to dam removals,” LaFountain said. “Overall public safety increases with the overall ecological and resilience benefits.”
The Ausable River Association helped pilot the mapping project in the Ausable watershed and has been working to replace culverts and restore stream systems for over a decade. Kelley Tucker, executive director of the river association, said engaging local communities is critical to stream projects. She said evaluating, mapping and prioritizing stream barriers will help position the region for potential federal funding. The proposed environmental bond on the ballot this November could also pay for these types of projects.
While the state Department of Environmental Conservation maintains an inventory of thousands of dams across the state, the number of small, undocumented dams is unknown. Even the smallest dams can alter local ecosystems.
“They interrupt the natural flow regime and sediment transport, obstruct fish passage, sometimes they are more hazardous downstream, and it’s unclear how many of them there are,” Minkoff said. “As many dams as we know exist, there are many more we don’t even know about.”
Tucker said there may be many small, non-inventoried dams in the Ausable watershed. She is aware of several properties along the stream she lives on. Tucker said more needs to be done to provide technical assistance and financial resources to property owners interested in removing them .
“It’s definitely an issue we would like to start doing more for,” Tucker said.
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