Nearly 200 years later, New York officials are still trying to get salmon back into the Saranac River. The biggest obstacle: Dams.
Dams undid a wild river and its signature fish. Now they face new scrutiny.
By Ry Rivard
Jeff Snyder was in his happy place, fly fishing the Saranac River near the foot of Franklin Falls Dam on a lazy summer day.
He was at a loss to name anything wrong with the river. But something was missing.
The Saranac flows from headwaters around Upper Saranac Lake, in the heart of the Adirondacks, and winds some 81 miles to the northeast, dropping nearly 1,500 feet before spilling into Lake Champlain.
Snyder, who lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, has fished it for 35 years and keeps coming back. To him, the Saranac is ideal.
It’s scenic and winding. Most important on this July day, though, it was alive with fallfish.
“They put up a good fight,” Snyder said of the trout-size minnow. “They’re fun to catch and they’re easy to catch because they eat almost anything.”
Even the fallfish’s spunk can’t match the tug of a fish that has been conspicuously and long absent from this river, though.
Atlantic salmon were once so numerous in the river that early settlers could haul them out by the cartload. Then, two centuries ago, they vanished.
For the last half century, state and federal officials have tried to lure salmon back into the Saranac. But they keep running into the same problem that drove the salmon away in the 1800s: dams.
Dams disrupt the careful balance that salmon need to spawn and swim. Key to a salmon’s life is its return from open water, like Lake Champlain, to upstream waters, like the Saranac, where it nests and lays eggs on gravelly river beds.
In just the past decade, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has dumped about a million salmon at the mouth of the Saranac to build a fishery in Lake Champlain. None can get upstream.
DEC is trying to change that but, ironically, the department is standing in its own way. It is part owner of the Imperial Mills Dam. At the Saranac’s mouth, it blocks fish coming in from Lake Champlain.
“Believe me, I’d like to take this one across the goal line,” Robert Fiorentino, a state fisheries manager, told a group of Clinton County lawmakers this summer. Several of his predecessors have tried and failed to do the same.
Some dams, like Imperial Mills, block salmon by their very existence. They are towering obstacles in the middle of rivers that fish cannot swim up and over.
Other dams have downstream effects. They create false tides that disrupt the natural flow of rivers and can create chaos for fish trying to swim, eat and nest. Even though salmon never made it as far up the Saranac as Franklin Falls, which is 45 miles from Lake Champlain, that dam and others contribute to its inhospitable nature.
Bill Schoch, a former state official who helped regulate dams in this part of New York, said because of its dams, the Saranac sees “wicked fluctuations in flow.” Those dramatic fluctuations happen with “disturbing regularity.”
An unguarded river
There are 10 significant dams across the Saranac, eight of them generating hydroelectricity. The Saranac starts in the middle of the Adirondack Park, one of the most protected stretches of wilderness in the country. Those state protections, though, do little to safeguard the river’s flow. So, even as the name Saranac became famous on the label on a pale ale, the river has gone largely unheralded and unguarded.
Hydroelectric dams, for the most part, are privately operated under federal licenses that are updated once every 40 years or so.
Healthy rivers flow in predictable ways. When it rains, there’s more water. When it’s dry, there’s less.
In the Saranac, things can work differently. Water levels will fall and rise with and without rain because of the operation and occasional malfunction of its dams, which can choke back the river and then release its water suddenly.
Fish, and the insects they feast upon, have adapted to some degree of water fluctuation, but they are not prepared for the modern Saranac’s sudden and repeated ebbs and flows. Things can happen quickly in a river, but sudden changes typically occur when one gushes with new water. The Saranac’s only public gauge shows a history of things happening in the opposite direction—the river quickly drying up.
“In general, rivers don’t jump down, they jump up,” said John J. Wiley, Jr., a hydrologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Dams are usually to blame for these downward jumps.
The Saranac doesn’t lurch all the way down to bone-dry channel, at least where flow is measured in Plattsburgh. At its lowest this July and August, it was about 2 ½ feet deep. But sudden drops can strand aquatic life outside of the water, which can be fatal. Shallow water can also heat up faster and choke off life if it doesn’t contain enough oxygen.
Then, when water is released, it can wash away fish and insect eggs that would otherwise stay in place.
All this, Wiley said, is why salmon don’t do as well in rivers with dams.
Unlike other rivers flowing out of the Adirondacks—the Ausable or the Hudson, for example—the Saranac doesn’t have a dedicated watchdog looking out for it. For more than 20 years, the Ausable River Association has tended to that picturesque mountain stream, protecting it, studying it, and even helping to remove one of its dams.
But the Saranac is about to attract renewed attention.
Two dams—the Bartlett Carry Dam in the headwaters and Imperial Mills at the mouth—are facing expensive safety upgrades from their owners in coming years.
And between now and 2027, four of the eight hydroelectric dams—Lake Flower, Franklin Falls, Union Falls and Treadwell Mills—are up for the major federal review required for dams that produce power.
The multiyear relicensing process, overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), has high stakes. Dam owners are supposed to start from square one to justify their licenses to FERC and do a series of detailed studies on how their dams affect the river.
Newly relicensed dams are often held to much stricter standards to protect fish and water quality. Four other power-generating dams in the middle of the Saranac have been relicensed since 2000. That series of New York State Electric & Gas Corp. dams near Morrisonville was granted a new 40-year license in 2006.
Relicensing will provide a peek behind the manufactured landscape created by dams even in New York’s most protected wilderness area. For some scientists, anglers and environmentalists, this is the first and last chance they will have to challenge how the dams operate in their lifetimes.
Steve Patch, a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the next several years offer the chance to change the Saranac for the next 40.
“It’s a pretty good fishing river as it is, but it could be a lot better,” he said.
There are other fish in the Saranac besides fallfish. Pretty much everything is manipulated to some extent, though. The state stocks the Saranac with non-native brown trout and rainbow trout.
The salmon that officials want to see back in the Saranac aren’t the salmon that once swam there, either. They are a breed of salmon from Sebago Lake, in Maine, that have been stocked in Lake Champlain and its tributaries since the 1970s. These salmon go by the confounding name “landlocked Atlantic salmon,” which means they stick around Lake Champlain and its tributaries and don’t make it to the Atlantic Ocean.
There’s ongoing debate about whether the original wild salmon were landlocked or reached salt water. There are none around to tell. They were all killed by dams, pollution and overfishing.
But before then, in time immemorial, salmon went back and forth between the Saranac River and Lake Champlain, at least. Then, in the late 1700s, dams arose.
Pretty quickly, New York lawmakers realized dams had “greatly injured” the salmon fishery.
In spring 1800, state legislators passed a law to protect the salmon. It required dam owners to either install a special passageway on their dams so salmon could reach upstream spawning waters, or else remove their dams.
The law soon faced a test on the Saranac, where the cold mountain water tumbling out of the Adirondacks created ideal spawning habitat. Zephaniah Platt had already put a dam across the Saranac near its mouth. Salmon, once plentiful in the river’s final 13 miles, were vanishing.
In 1819, after a trial with a “great number of witnesses,” a judge ruled that Platt’s stretch of the river was private property and the state couldn’t tell him what to do there. He didn’t need to build a ramp or tear down his dam. The salmon and anyone who wanted to fish for them were dammed out of luck.
In the spring of 1824, the last known wild salmon was caught on the Saranac.
Nearly 200 years later, New York officials are still trying to get salmon back into the Saranac.
Not far from Platt’s old dam, in what is now Plattsburgh, sits the Imperial Mills Dam.
In recent years, the DEC has become part owner of the dam, which now blocks the salmon the state wants back in the river.
Imperial Mills remains the first obstacle facing salmon trying to get from Lake Champlain into the Saranac. The other, a few miles upstream, is Treadwell Mills. The next dam upstream, Kent Falls, is thought to be at a natural falls that the salmon never passed anyway.
Explorer intern photographer Benjamin Chambers visited the Saranac River in July to document life there and capture images of its dams and natural habitat. See a gallery of his photos by following the above link.
A fish ladder awaits
For years, Treadwell has been ready for salmon to return. When it was last relicensed, the owners 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.
But Treadwell has had other problems that demonstrate how dams can quietly harm the Saranac.
In summer 2015, Treadwell, then owned by a company called Enel Green Power North America, had a series of malfunctions when water it was supposed to be releasing downstream got held back due to problems in its control room.
On one of those days, the Saranac had about 4 feet of water in it. Suddenly, the river plunged by a foot within two hours and didn’t return to its original height for a few days. Enel blamed a combination of computer and human errors, and took steps to correct them.
The dam was recently sold to a different company, Hull Street Energy, and the self-reported problems of 2015 have not repeated.
But the Saranac often experiences drops that go unnoticed, unreported and largely untraced.
Each of the hydroelectric dams is supposed to log how much water passes through, but those readings are not immediately public.
Only a single gauge at river’s end in Plattsburgh provides public data. Every 15 minutes—96 times a day—the gauge checks the river’s pulse, measuring the Saranac’s height in feet and its flow in cubic feet per second.
A quick look at the graph of these measurements shows how unnaturally the Saranac can act. On some days, the river drops suddenly and then quickly shoots back up.
On July 6 this year, the river was humming along at about 3 feet in elevation. Around lunch, it dropped about 5 inches in a few hours. Then, in the evening, it rose a full foot, before dropping back down to about 3 feet at night. No public explanation of this can be found. It just happened.
Similar drops occurred later in July and then twice in mid-August. The river’s lowest levels all year were because of these sudden drops—drops almost certainly caused by something happening at one or more of the river’s dams.
Each artificial drop makes life hard on fish and insects, preventing establishment of routine conditions.
DEC knows this and takes the position that any fluctuation of water level may have a negative impact on plants and animals. But figuring out who is causing those fluctuations is harder and, in fact, rarely tried.
Numbers are available from the dam operators, but Schoch, the former DEC official, said they were always difficult to get. He blamed companies for not wanting to pay for more public gauges on the river.
“They don’t want to put in gauges, because it costs them money,” he said. “You have to maintain these gauges. You have to recalibrate them frequently—and they don’t want to have to be forced to pay to collect the evidence that they are violating their license.”
Dam operators on the river disputed that. Kruger, the company that owns the Union Falls Dam, sent a statement saying “Union Falls has not resisted adding stream gauges.”
The one public gauge is maintained by the federal government at the cost of about $18,000 a year. Adding another is more complicated than it sounds. Nationally, many stream gauges have gone dark in recent years because of budget cuts.
“It comes down to who is willing to pay for it,” said Jerry Butch, the associate director for data for U.S. Geological Survey’s New York Water Science Center.
‘Run of river’
Most of the dams are supposed to let out as much water as Saranac sends them, meaning the river should flow somewhat consistently throughout—a concept known as “run of river.” That means the Saranac dams are largely unable to take advantage of ups and downs in the energy market by holding back water to release when energy prices are high.
Franklin Falls, though, is allowed to hold back some water. Even though there’s no evidence that the dam is operating outside of its license, that might be enough to throw off other dams, starting with Union Falls, which is just downstream. Years ago, the two dams were owned by the same company and licensed together. Now they operate separately.
Patch, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, said during the upcoming relicensing there will be a lot of focus on Franklin Falls and trying to change how it operates. Tightening how much water the dam can hold back for later release through its turbines could tamp down fluctuations throughout the river.
“That should go a long way toward fixing the river,” he said.
Franklin Falls is now owned by Brookfield, a multinational company that owns more than 70 hydroelectric facilities in New York, mostly in the North Country.
“We are aware of the flow fluctuation downstream and don’t believe our operations attributed to those fluctuations,” the company said in a statement (the company said it meant to use the word “attributed”). “Certainly, as the 5-year relicensing process continues, and environmental resource studies are completed they will inform the resource areas specific to our operations and the Saranac River.”
Without more public gauges, though, it’s hard to figure out which dam is causing the fluctuations. Multiple dams may take one abrupt change from one dam and amplify it. Or they could muffle the spike, meaning things at the foot of one dam might be far worse than the publicly available data from the river’s mouth lets on. It’s hard to know.
A finicky system
“It may not be the bottom dam that does it. It may be three dams up,” Wiley said, speaking generally about dammed rivers and not specifically the Saranac. “And because these dams are controlled remotely and they are not very smart, the way these deviations can be exacerbated, or they can be alleviated, it just depends on how finicky the system is.”
Future changes to how the dams operate could smooth out the river’s spikes, which are displayed on a chart known as a hydrograph. But that can’t fix all the river’s problems, said Mark Malchoff, an aquatic resource specialist for Lake Champlain Sea Grant, a federally backed institute that studies the lake and its tributaries.
He said the Saranac is now less of a river and more a series of ponds separated by dams.
“Even if you did away with this perturbation of the hydrograph, you still have got a whole bunch of dams that fish can’t get past,” Malchoff said.
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 the 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.