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Greenwood: Dam Removal

One of summer’s greatest pleasures is floating down a river. It’s less about the vehicle than it is about the floating: an inner tube, kayak, canoe, or even just your own body. The White River is where I grew up floating and - it’s one of the last free-flowing rivers Vermont.

Vermont has over 12-hundred dams that span our brooks and rivers, and some impound water to create ponds and lakes. Many dams used to serve as the center of our communities. They produced power and turned the saw and grain mills around which many of our villages were built. We’ve grown used to seeing them--or not noticing them--as a part of our landscape. But just because they’ve always been there, doesn’t mean they need to stay.

As you drive around Vermont, take a look at the dams that segment our rivers. You’ll see silt that’s built up behind them, silt that would have moved downstream in a healthier river system. You’ll see that the water is often shallower behind a dam than it is downstream, meaning it gets hot faster and holds less oxygen. If you’re a fish, you’ll definitely notice that that silt is like a desert if you want to lay eggs. And picture yourself floating over a dam. Foolhardy. Probably painful.

These silent barriers are a real problem in Vermont. Of the 12-hundred or so dams, only about 80 produce power. Many of the rest have fallen into disrepair. It’s time to take them out.

Most dams are not designed or built to withhold flood waters and may actually increase flooding. Their impacts on fish and biota are well known, and they make our waters warmer. Just a few degrees can impact the available habitat for trout. And, they make it really hard to float a river.

It’s time we started seeing these disused dams, and seeing them for what they often are: not-so-fish-friendly relics from another era that fragment our rivers. They are hazards that can crack and crumble and cause damage downstream. And they create barriers that can worsen flooding.

In cases where a dam will never be economical to produce power again, or where a dam is essentially falling apart, let’s take them out. Maybe it’s time to look at Vermont’s dams with a critical eye and decide if they make sense in the 21st century. Some do, most don’t. It’s about a whole lot more than just being able to float down a river, but that’s a good reason to start.

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