By Mike Lynch
Lake Champlain salmon are a step closer to being able to reach more of their historic spawning grounds in the Saranac River, just outside the northeastern corner of the Adirondack Park.
Crews started removing debris from the remains of a pair of defunct dams in Plattsburgh. Work started in late August to tear down what was left of the Indian Rapids Dam, while deconstruction efforts began on the former Fredenburgh Falls Dam site earlier this month.
The effort comes after more than three decades of work by private and public partners to restore salmon to the Lake Champlain watershed, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is heading up the project.
The Saranac River is one of four tributaries in the Lake Champlain watershed where the Fish and Wildlife Service is working to restore naturally producing salmon populations. It is also working on the Boquet River, which is fully within the Adirondack Park. The eastern part of Lake Champlain just south of Plattsburgh also falls within the park.
Both removal projects are expected to finish up by the end of this month, said Dave Minkoff, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but some of the shoreline work could take longer to complete.
Once the structures are gone, Imperial Mills Dam will be the only remaining obstacle standing in the way of fish going upstream. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has plans to install a fish ladder on the dam by the fall of 2026.
Imperial Mills Dam is located three miles from Lake Champlain while the others are further upstream.
Once those projects are completed, scientists say salmon will be able to navigate upstream to historic spawning grounds all the way to Kent Falls, a dam that is also a natural barrier near Cadyville.
That means salmon would have roughly 13 miles of habitat to spawn from Lake Champlain, in addition to another 18 miles on tributaries.
Salmon have been unable to get up the lower Saranac River since 1786, when the first dam was constructed in Plattsburgh.
Trout Unlimited, one of the project partners, has been pushing for the dam removals for decades.
With the dams gone, the river should start to regain its natural flow, Minkoff said. That will allow sediment to move through more freely, prevent ice jams and allow fish species already living in the river to access more habitat.
“There are a lot of benefits,” he said.
Lower Saranac Hydro, nowed by Patriot Hydro, owns the Indian Rapids and Fredenburgh Falls dams. New York State Electric & Gas (NYSEG) is a joint owner of the Indian Rapids Dam.
Lower Saranac Hydro Partners, the former owner, installed a fish ladder at the Treadwell Mills Dam — a hydro-power facility upriver from the Indian Rapids and Fredenburgh Falls dams— as part of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing process for generating electricity at the site in 1990.
Around that time, Lower Saranac Hydro also entered into a settlement agreement to remove the Indian Rapids and Fredenburgh Falls dams.
In recent years with momentum on other salmon projects, the Fish and Wildlife Service reached out to Patriot Hydro andNYSEG to execute the original agreement to remove the Indian Rapids and Fredenburgh dams.
More to Explore:
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 service agreed to fund engineering, permitting and construction-phase costs and asked that Patriot Hydro and NYSEG cover construction.
Funding sources include $536,000 from Patriot Hydro, $175,000 from the federal government, $65,000 from NYSEG and $370,000 from the Lake Champlain Basin Program through their new Aquatic Organism Passage Implementation Fund made possible by Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding.
“As the new owner of the Lower Saranac Hydroelectric Project, we are excited to help move this project forward to support the restoration of the salmon run on the Lower Saranac River after centuries of blocked access,” said David Olsheski, vice president at Patriot Hydro. “We commend Trout Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for spearheading this collaboration and can’t wait until salmon are finally able to climb the fish ladder at our Lower Saranac facility.”
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