By Ry Rivard
In May 2018, a rush of snowmelt and rain in the forecast put officials in the Village of Saranac Lake on high alert for flooding. The governor declared a state of emergency and thousands of sandbags were readied for action.
Within a few days, a new problem sprang up 10 miles outside of the village, at the Bartlett Carry Dam. The dam holds back the Saranac River to raise Upper Saranac Lake’s elevation by several feet. A sinkhole had suddenly formed on the dam’s south bank, adjacent to the private Bartlett Carry Club.
The club, which had once owned the dam, sold the dam to a foundation in 1993 so it could be better maintained. Since then, the Upper Saranac Foundation had tended the dam, making a series of repairs over the years.
When the 2018 sinkhole appeared, it became clear some issues had gone unnoticed.
On May 5, a Saturday, the foundation activated its emergency plan, which requires dam owners notify local public safety officials of “an unusual problem or situation.”
The next day, the foundation provided an even more urgent alert. This is the one dam owners must provide when a dam has the potential to fail but things are still considered controllable.
By Monday, May 7, with the help of the volunteer fire department and the sandbags that had were already on hand, the foundation and its engineers had things under control.
“Our emergency was precautionary,” said the foundation’s lake manager, Guy Middleton.
But the episode highlighted that the work done by the foundation since the 1990s hadn’t been enough, including a 1994 upgrade that reconstructed and strengthened the dam.
During the fixes in 2018, the foundation came across other long-term issues.
Now, the foundation is working to make more extensive repairs next year.
In the short term, the repairs shouldn’t affect lake levels up or down from the dam, Middleton said. In the long term, they will further strengthen the dam, seal parts of it, lessen the need for future repairs and preserve the whole thing for the foreseeable future.
The foundation’s board president, Tom Swayne, also has a private dam on his property in New Jersey that he maintains. He said the repairs next year to the Bartlett Carry Dam should put the foundation’s dam problems to bed for the next half century or more.
“That should be a pretty good comprehensive fix,” Swayne said.
He said the repairs could cost around $1 million.
Some money will come from donors with property around the lake. But the foundation may also need help from the state or local governments. That suggests even well-resourced and well-intentioned private dam owners can struggle to keep an old dam up to date.
In the North Country, there are over 200 privately owned dams. The Upper Saranac Foundation — known locally for its work on the dam and for helping to remove tons of the invasive plant milfoil from the lake — is one of the more publicly visible and on-top-of-it small dam owners. Besides the major upgrade in 1994 and 2018, the foundation has made repairs in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2016.
Swayne said the foundation is in discussions with the state Department of Environmental Conservation about chipping in to pay for the upgrades. The state owns land on the south side of the dam. The foundation will also seek money from the Town of Harrietstown, which includes most of the Village of Saranac Lake.
To make the case to the state, the foundation talks about all that the Bartlett Carry Dam does to prop up the lake. By holding back the Saranac River, the dam raises Upper Saranac Lake by about 4 feet, all the way back to Fish Creek Pond and Rollins Pond. There, of course, are some of the state’s most popular campgrounds, which depend on good water levels.
To make the case to the town, the foundation can point to one of the Adirondacks’ largest communities, the Village of Saranac Lake, which sits on Lake Flower, which would absorb some of the flooding if the dam ever failed.
How much flooding, it seems, is unknown. The dam’s emergency action plan says if the dam was breached, “the effects would be relatively minor, resulting in damage to isolated homes, minor highways and (potentially) some utilities.” But those statements are based on a decade-old analysis that some officials want to see updated, according to a risk map study last year by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The same FEMA report also suggests a new tax district around Upper Saranac Lake could help pay for long-term upkeep of the dam. Swayne said that isn’t in the cards for now, because it would take time and the foundation doesn’t want to wait to make the repairs.
The 2018 sinkhole isn’t the only recent issue upstream of the village. In 2019, a problem at the DEC’s own locks were vandalized and a gate was opened.
John Sweeney, the Village of Saranac Lake’s manager, said he noticed the problem when water levels in the village suddenly rose. He phoned DEC.
“I called and said, ‘Where is the water coming from guys, it didn’t rain last night,’ ” he said.
DEC declined to make official reports of either the 2018 or 2019 incidents public unless the Explorer filed a formal records request. The department has yet to release those documents in response to that formal request.