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Where do Vermont's dams stand after last month's flooding?

Overview look of a dam. Water overflowing and aggressively flowing out.
University of Vermont Spatial Analysis Lab, the Agency of Transportation and the Civil Air Patrol.
The Fairfax Falls Hydroelectric Dam is inundated with floodwaters on July 11, 2023.

Until last month, many Vermonters might not have thought twice about dams. But Vermont is home to nearly 1,000 of them. And many were pushed to the limit during last month’s catastrophic flooding, putting residents downstream at risk.

Kevin McCallum is a reporter at Seven Days who, along with colleague Derek Brouwer, dug deep into Vermont’s dams for a recent cover story, Dam Scary: Intense Storms Push Vermont’s Aging Structures to the Brink. McCallum joined Vermont Public's Mary Engisch to talk about his reporting. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Kevin McCallum wearing a blue shirt, slightly smirking at camera. White background.
Seven days
Seven days

Mary Engisch: Let's start out with that general landscape for dams in Vermont. I think some folks imagine big hydroelectric projects when they hear that word. But can you break down the range of dams that we do have in Vermont? What are they used for? Why were they built?

Kevin McCallum: Well, certainly Vermont has its share of very large, sort of marquee flood control dams. Most of them were built in the '30s, after a really devastating flood in 1927 that killed more than 80 people. But the the dam landscape in Vermont is much more diverse than that. There are dams at ski resorts that hold back ponds for snowmaking; there are dams on farms for irrigation. And there are lots of little dams that are spread around the state, that sort of make little ponds which people like to paddle and canoe and things like that. So it's a diverse range.

And I know officials, they're still gathering information on this. But how did dams do during last month's flooding?

So it is early, and they are still furiously visiting dams all around the state to get a sense of just how they held up. There are indications that they are under tremendous stress and that they have had some defects. There were, as of last week when the reporting for this story finished, two dozen dams that appear to have what they call defects that they think are probably the result of damage from the floods. That's in addition to a federal database, before the floods even started, that showed there were 63 dams in the state that were both in poor condition and were high hazards. Meaning that if they failed, [they could] kill people and destroy a lot of property. So we've got some issues with dams in the state of Vermont, and state officials are aware of it and they're trying to get to the bottom of it.

Yeah, we've been talking sort of broadly about dams and structures, water of course. But as you're saying there are people living in these communities below dams. Did you talk to anybody in in some of these remote towns? And how are they feeling after the last storm?

So I got a range of responses from people, I did speak to a homeowner who lives literally in the shadow of the Wrightsville dam north of Montpelier. He's just about a mile or so downstream on the North Branch. He was very proud of the dam that's upstream from him and feels as though it created a lot of flood protection for his home. He's literally right on the banks of the river. His basement got flooded; the North Branch came up onto his property and into his home and it was very scary. But at the end of the day, he feels like the dam that was built upriver from him back in the '30s provided very important service to slow down and prevent worse flooding in Montpelier.

But I've also spoken to people who are nearby and in other parts of the state who say they're a little concerned about some of the dams that the state has, and about what downstream impacts could occur if some of these dams ran into trouble. In Waterbury, I spoke to someone who literally said, " I would not want to live downstream from that dam."

And we weren't necessarily surprised that some of these dams did fail last month, or even that others were really pushed to their limits. State and federal agencies have databases on Vermont's dams. Other outside groups, they've also assessed these dams. What do we know about the condition of Vermont's hundreds and hundreds of dams?

The ones that I think most people would be most concerned about is the 63 dams that are on the list the federal inspectors keep that show that they're both in poor condition, and they are high hazards. So if you think about that, right, to have a dam that is both not doing well and dangerous — is a really bad combination. There's another factor in here that isn't really mentioned — it's their age. It's deeper in the database. But when you start looking at the numbers, you start looking at dams that are in poor condition. They're dangerous, and they're old. One of the dams that we looked at was built in 1834. It's the Ascutney Mill Dam down in Windsor. And so think about that, right? That's a pretty old structure, and to have it in poor condition and in danger of harming people and property is not a good situation.

Whose job is it to oversee and regulate all these structures? I mean, some are on private properties, right? And then, like we said at the top, others are hydroelectric power dams. Others are reservoirs that are created for recreational sort of waterways.

That's right. Because the landscape of dams in the state is diverse, they are regulated by different entities. Some are regulated by the federal government. Some are regulated by utility regulators, especially if they are hydroelectric dams. But the key regulatory body in the state of Vermont for dams is the Agency of Natural Resources. There are dam inspectors. For years there were only two dam inspectors in the entire state of Vermont. In recent years, however, they have beefed up the staff. Now there's five, but it's still a very small department. They're overwhelmed with the number of dam inspections that they need to do. Following this flood, they've tapped some resources from other states like New York and Massachusetts to get some more inspections here. They're slowly working through the list of dams to try to see which ones are most distressed.

Lastly, Kevin handling all this state's dams in a timely manner, that would be so awesome. In a perfect world, unlimited money, right? But we don't have that. So how might officials address this moving forward? What might we realistically see?

Well, lawmakers kind of saw this on the horizon in 2018. They passed a law to beef up the inspections of dams and to require it. There is some indication that the state is kind of getting its arms around the problem, but there's also indications that they're a little behind the eight ball. There were some rules that they were supposed to draft about how to sort of repair a dam if there is a defect found in it. They haven't even begun writing the rules to which those owners would need to bring those dams up to those standards. That in and of itself is going to take a couple of years, you would think. I know the Waterbury Dam , the repair hasn't even been designed for that damage. They kind of know it's going to be about $60 million, but they're thinking that that's two, three, four years away from even being complete. It is a little scary to think that our dams in the state of Vermont are in this poor condition and that the repairs for them are years away.

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