Photo provided/Ausable River Association
Image taken of the Rome Dam, historically known as the Pulp Mill Dam, show its position on the West Branch of the Ausable River.
JAY — Work is underway on the three-year project to remove the Rome Dam.
The structure was first built in 1897 on the West Branch of the Ausable River to provide power for the J & J Rogers Paper Mill. But the stone masonry was partially destroyed by a flood in 1936 and then rebuilt with concrete. It ceased use in 1973 and has since fallen into disrepair.
Working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Jay Supervisor Archie Depo said the town has been under consent order since 2010 to address safety at the dam — to either rebuild it or remove it or part of it.
Engineers working for the Ausable River Association completed a long-term review of the dam, also known as the Pulp Mill dam, in February and developed six options: no action; full removal; three-quarters removal; half-removal; full repair, or a replacement with a modern structure.
The town council voted in March to remove the antiquated dam.
“We decided against reuse because of the conditions of the dam and its operating mechanism,” Depo said.
The option for reuse cited by engineers indicates that the entire dam would have to removed anyway and then rebuilt if the site were to be used to generate hydroelectric power.
“There was a study done a few years ago, another organization was looking into using the dam for power, and they found the same problem,” Depo said.
The town purchased the 17-acre property just off Au Sable Drive about 10 years ago at an Essex County tax sale and had initially looked into building a power station there.
At the Ausable River Association, Executive Director Kelley Tucker said their study found the Rome Dam structure is not the type of dam used to generate power.
“My understanding is that there are two sets of problems with reusing the dam. It was built in 1936 and is very different from the type of dam for hydroelectric power. They have nothing in common in terms of water control operation,” Tucker said.
In fact, engineers at Milone and MacBroom estimated the cost to replace just the dam (before installing any electric infrastructure) would be about $8 million.
Tucker said the second issue with the Rome Dam site is that the Ausable is a “very flashy” river so rain makes the river run unpredictably high at times.
And in summer, like last year, the water drops to a very low level and would not generate power.
“It would be a very inconsistent source of power,” Tucker said.
“The town couldn’t afford to rebuild a power plant there with the needed infrastructure to connect it to the grid,” Depo said.
“On March 2, we had the engineers here at the town hall for a public information session and they went through the six alternative actions,” Depo said.
The recommended action was to remove the structure.
The first part of the project began last week, creating a simple loop access-road to the dam. The road construction received permits from DEC and the Adirondack Park Agency.
“Because the snow was so deep they just cut the trees and let them lie,” Tucker said last Thursday.
The road work is being done by the town to keep costs down and it may serve as an access trail to a new town picnic and fishing park.
Tucker said the dam removal is expected to cost around $2.5 million to $3 million, a cost covered by the New York Rising Infrastructure Program, which was developed after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 to help towns better prepare for big flood events.
The hamlet at Au Sable Forks is located in a flood plain, Tucker said, and the threat of ice jams at Rome Dam will be eliminated with its removal.
“One of the findings in our study is that there will most likely be less ice because it won’t collect on the dam structure. Anchor ice loves structures that stick out above the water,” Tucker said.
According to the engineering report, “removal of the dam is anticipated to increase the rate of ice erosion during thaw. Moving water and higher flow velocities will more rapidly thin and move ice as the weather turns warmer. Turbulent water flowing over the expected bedrock drops will wear away ice more quickly.”
Through the hydrology study, the River Association found there are two natural waterfalls under the dam, one sits beneath the back of the dam, the other is upstream at least 10 feet.
“With natural falls, there won’t be more water and there won’t be more ice,” Tucker said.
Allowing the river to return to natural waterfall conditions has benefit for fish habitat as well.
“Waterfalls are good because they create oxygen for fish. We don’t know yet if they will be able to jump these waterfalls and move upstream, but the West Branch is a stocked with Brown Trout. There are native Brook Trout in that area and I think there might be some Rainbows as well,” Tucker said.
The dam deconstruction process is expected to take at least three years, according to the engineering study.
“Yes, the dam is historic,” Tucker said.
It did serve an important purpose to mining and milling industry in the region.
“And it means a lot to people who have lived here for generations.”
The remnants of the old J & J Paper Mill sit decaying on the left bank near the dam.
The town and Ausable River Association are now working with New York State Historic Preservation Office to photograph and document the dam, its construction and history.
They plan to host a photography exhibit and in Au Sable Forks once the documentation project is complete, Tucker said.
The town and Ausable River Association are working with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office to establish a historic marker for the Rome (Pulp Mill) Dam.
“It’s going to be a flowing river with two waterfalls instead of a dam and it may present a really nice opportunity for a hiking path and an access point for fishing,” Tucker said.