Throughout the North Country, there are streams that have been used as power sources in the past. Logs were transported downstream in the early spring via the power of the moving water. This fluid power ran sawmills, grain grinding grist mills, and supplied hydraulic muscle to turn turbines for electric power. Water was used by many factories along the rivers for the manufacturing of various items like paper making. In the southern Adirondacks water was used in many of the tanning facilities like those in Amsterdam and Gloversville.
The streams were a tool to be used and little thought was given to protect fisheries. Numerous chemicals and other pollutants were dumped into the streams, many changed with the color of the chemical being used that day. The fish had to fend for themselves. They either went up clear water tributaries to survive or downstream to lakes if they could get there. If they didn’t make it, they were sushi for the birds and mammals along the shoreline.
Many of the old stone and wooden cribbed dams that were layed up in the early years of the Adirondacks are gone. Some still remain as dams for reservoirs for town water supplies, although surface water supplies are no longer allowed in New York, with the exception of New York City.
NYC gets their water from open reservoirs in the Catskills. New York City gets away with a lot of things that the rest of us have to deal with. I guess we know where the voting power is for New York, don’t we!
Many of the dams in the state are getting old, and becoming a threat to downstream residents. Repairs are expensive and engineering to ensure safety is costly, very costly now days. With the increases in high volume storm events like Hurricane Floyd, Irene and others, having a dam in a state of disrepair is a liability. No town can afford a lawsuit brought on by a dam that gives way.
On the fisheries side of the story, tail water streams below dams are some of the most productive fisheries. Cold water discharged from the bottom of the dam supplies a continuous supply of cool water to the stream below. These dams release water at certain rates, so the stream doesn’t have great fluctuations in stream flow. This makes the stream ideal trout habitat. This nutrient rich, cold water makes a fabulous trout fishery.
In New York, the East Branch of the Delaware River along the NY and Pennsylvania line gets water from the Pepacton Reservoir. This tail water stream is world famous for its trout fishing. The Pepacton Reservoir is one of the holding areas for the NYC water supply.
Every fly fisherman has heard of the Frying Pan, the South Platte and the Arkansas in Colorado, or Lees Ferry on the Colorado River in Arizona. All of these are famous gold class tail water streams. The nutrient rich, cold water makes these streams, the “dream streams” of many fly fishers. Folks like myself, travel all over the US to fish these waters. These streams draw in thousands of fisherman into the area where they purchase meals, hotels, fishing equipment, hire guides and just plain old spend money locally. Our own Ausable River is not a tail water stream, but it does bring in hundreds of fly fishermen to the area, where they spend their money. That is good for our local economy.
There are also downsides to dams. One downside is that all dams are not bottom discharge dams. Many dams have the water released from the top of the dam, or over spillways. The problem then becomes warm water. The lake behind the dam heats up during the summer and that warm water is then discharged into the stream, affecting the trout fishery below. Much depends on the size of the impoundment and supply temperature of water to the stream above the lake. Large impoundments have a greater effect on the stream below.
The plus side to this type of dam is that bugs that hatch on the lake get washed over the spillway and feed the fish below the dam.
Trout are cold water species. When the water warms, they migrate into cold water spring seep pools, cooler water stream tributaries or out to a lake to get to their comfort zone. If they can’t migrate to colder water, they can die. Once again, sushi!
A second problem is that the natural migration of aquatic organisms is stopped by dams. Whether it’s the fish, invertebrates, minnows or other stream critters, dams can stop their natural migration up or down stream. This results in a loss of diversity in the upstream reaches. The continuity of the stream habitat must be maintained to keep a sound aquatic community.
On the flip side, dams may prevent the spread of invasive species into a river system, like lamprey eels.
Brook trout, brown trout, rainbows (steelhead) and smallmouth bass all spawn in the streams at various times. Some spawn in spring and some in fall. They may migrate back to the lake or stay in the stream. Steelheads are rainbow trout that migrate back and forth from stream to lake. Cattaraugus Creek in western NY is known for its steelhead runs and smallmouth fishery. Dams can stop this natural occurrence from ever happening. There is talk of removing the dam in Springville NY to allow access to another 20 or more mile of habitat for trout and other fish. We have dams in our area that also limit fish passage.
A third problem is that dams can allow ice to form and build up. In spring thaws, flooding can occur due to the ice jamming. Fast running water tends to be open, meaning it’s not frozen over, so ice jamming is less likely.
Dams also stop the natural transport of sediment through the river system, which can increase erosion along stream banks.
From a river restoration view point, the removal of some dams is a good thing. The effect on the river system depends on the location of the dam within the river. A dam at the top of the watershed doesn’t affect the river as much as one near the mouth of the stream. The closer to the mouth, the less likely there will be much fish and aquatic migration.
Top discharge dams affect the water temperature for the fish below the dam, and can restrict fish and aquatic organism passage from their natural migration patterns.
With fast moving waters ice formation is reduced and there is a greater probability of less flooding in the immediate area.
Dam removal projects get very emotional for people, especially the ones who live right on the impoundment. People fear it will turn into a mud hole or swamp. But it really turns back into the original floodplain. Usually the vegetation takes over so fast along the old shoreline that the restoration process happens on its own. With foresight and planning, the old shoreline can also be planted with various grasses’ to keep it open. Folks can then enjoy the new fast moving rapids and stream flow alongside a grassy bank that will supply fish with terrestrial bugs like grasshoppers, crickets and ants. You will get to see the river the way it was, not hidden under water.
Dams were built by man and can be removed by man. Power dams that supply electricity for the country or reservoirs for human water supplies are important and we need them. Some dams in the west restrict salmon migration and have garnered considerable heated discussions among fisheries groups.
We are not talking about the Hoover Dam or the pyramids or some historical site. We are talking about old stone and wood cribbed structures and dams that are in need of costly repairs. They are liabilities to the human residents downstream and to the aquatic residents in the stream. We have seen numerous flooding events in recent years and its time we take a real good look at all of our watersheds and make decisions that are good for the economy of our area and are long term solutions to flooding.
This is where the whole dam dilemma comes into play. Removal of a dam changes the landscape for the people nearby, but in the long run it will reduce many of the problems associated with the dam. If the fisheries can be improved, ice jamming reduced and the river brought back to its natural state, then it gets my vote. An improved fishery can start drawing folks from other areas and states to our area.
When they come here and spend money it is good for our economy. They can enjoy our local foods and fish, served up on a platter at a local restaurant or bar!
Now we need some homegrown beer, wine and cider to go with that fish dinner.
Rich Redman is a retired District Conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and an avid outdoorsman. His column will appear regularly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.