Damn that dam

The Imperial Dam continues to prevent Atlantic salmon from passing into primary spawning waters.

In 1819, Plattsburgh founder Zephaniah Platt became a defendant in a case still being argued today. He was indicted on three counts of nuisance after he allowed the building of a dam on the Saranac River.

The first count stated that salmon passed from Lake Champlain and up the Saranac for a distance of 20 miles. The erection of the dam was an unlawful obstruction of the course and passage of the fish.

Imperial Dam
The dam is a barrier to Atlantic salmon that once migrated up the river and spawned.

To this day the dam, now called the Imperial Dam since its rebuild in 1903, initially built for the benefit of the Imperial wallpaper mill, still stands.  The dam provided process water and electricity to the plant.

According to the September 2006 Lake Champlain Trout Unlimited (TU) report, the dam is unlicensed by the Federal Regularity Commission as well as being under jurisdiction for dam safety control by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

The report also states that the dam prevents access to fifteen kilometers of spawning water for Atlantic salmon, a fish once in abundance in the North Country, which "earned it a place on the Clinton County seal," the report states.

"It’s a local issue that has been out there for quite some time."

William Wellman of TU said ideally the dam should be removed. The removal of dams however sparks concern about things such as sediment build-up and damage to shoreline development or residences.

However, Wellman argues nobody will see the loss of docks or land and there aren't any shoreline developments, nor are there any potential environmental threats imposed in the trapped sediment.

The DEC performed a sediment contaminant analysis to study the sediment. A sampling proved there weren't any unusual pollutants in the sediment, disposing the argument of potential water pollutants.

While the battle over the dam’s removal continues, there have also been plans to build a fish ladder to allow access to the spawning waters. After the Environmental Bond Act passed in 1996, there was $1.5 million set aside for the project - that has yet to begin. Unsafe structural deficiencies were revealed by safety inspectors.

In the early 1970s, DEC started a restocking program to maintain the presence of Atlantic salmon, Wellman said. But without the ability to spawn, the fish cannot reproduce naturally, hence the importance of a fish ladder.

Imperial Dam
The Imperial Dam is located on the Saranac just behind the Plattsburgh State campus.

In a report by Dr. Timothy Mihuc and Erika Hartman, of the Lake Champlain Research Institute, the dam was researched for its effects on both water quality and the aquatic stream invertebrates.

Other issues include the fact that, according to the Lake Champlain Research Institute report, "dams alter flow regimes, sediment distribution and temperature; all which affect the stream's invertebrates."

Essentially, dams impound water, which in turn spreads it out causing water to warm faster and stay warm longer. In addition to preventing access to the waters, the change in the habitat also effects the invertebrates, or the insects, that the fish feed on. Like Atlantic salmon, invertebrates prefer fast moving water.

"We continue to be extremely interested in the removal of the dam," Wellman said.

He argues that the dam no longer serves a purpose for the North Counrty. In the event of a flood it will not trap water. It is not being used for any economic purposes, and it does not benefit the people of the area.

At one time, the salmon fishery was a major economic activity. By the mid 1800s, according to Mihuc, all big north end rivers had been shut off from salmon migration."It used to be a dynamic and productive salmon fishery," Mihuc said.

He added that while the dam is not serving a purpose it is affecting fish migration, changes the landscape surrounding the dam; it impounds water and traps sediment.

"It’s a local issue that has been out there for quite some time," he said

Many proposals have been made to solve the problems associated with the dam.

"We could reap the benefit of being a prime salmon fishing location."

Because of the expense to repair the useless dam, advocates such as Mihuc and Wellman propose that the dam be removed, yet leave enough of it to prevent lamprey, parasitic fish that prefer free, rapid moving fresh water, from migrating.

Mihuc said reducing the dam from its towering height of thirty feet to eight or nine feet would assist salmon migration.

As a result, the Saranac will again be a "free-flowing" river and will become home again to stream-spawning fish, such as the Atlantic salmon. According to the TU report, there would potentially be a large economic benefit as well.

To this day, Wellman said people come from all over the country and Canada to fish. He said people have come from places as far as Ohio.

According to the report, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated the economic impact of the Lake Champlain Fishery of being $200 million annually.

"We could reap the benefit of being a prime salmon fishing location," Wellman said.

Do you think the Imperial dam should be removed?


Imperial Dam timeline: Courtesy of Lake Champlain Trout Unlimited

1903: Dam built, serves Imperial Mill in Plattsburgh

1983: Lake Champlain Chapter Trout Unlimited (TU), advocates salmon fish ladder at Dam

1986: Last hydroelectricity generated at the dam

1989: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approves re-licensing of Dam, condition on installation of fish passage by Collins & Aikman.

1994: Collins & Aikman get re-hearing on compliance with re-licensing conditions. TU intervenes. Collins and Aikman relinquishes hydro license. Dam is now unlicensed by FERC, under DEC jurisdiction.

1996: Environmental Bond act passes, includes $1.5 million for fish ladder. TU lobbies successfully and gets Governor Pataki to include this in the Act.

1997: DEC buys four acres on north bank, prepares fish ladder plan.

1999: DEC Division of Dam Safety hires consultant to review safety factors at Dam.

2002: DEC begins round of conferences with Collins & Aikman, and now potential new owners, to resolve safety issues, get agreement to lower dam and install fish passage/lamprey barrier.

1983-2003:  Twenty years have passed. There is still no fish ladder.

2003-2006: No action has been taken to restore the primary spawning habitat for Atlantic salmon.

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