Vermont is littered with failing dams.
Just about everyone knows of a dam, big or small, that is crumbling and falling apart, looking as if one good rainstorm will wash it away. Some of the dams in Vermont still serve a purpose, such as flood control, power generation or even recreation, but many more provide no public good. Instead, these are in danger of failing and causing property damage, or worse, exacting a human toll.
When Tropical Storm Irene hit three years ago, it caused significant damage, but it was only by a stroke of luck that a dam didn’t break and cost human lives or cause further extensive property damage below.
Several smaller dams were overtopped, and if one had failed, it could have released a wave of water downstream. Vermont has been fortunate so far. But as large weather events become more frequent, the likelihood of more Irene-sized storms becomes a real threat. As our dams continue to be stressed, the likelihood of a dam failure increases.
In 2005, in Fort Ann, New York, a dam failure destroyed four homes, closed a state highway and caused $1 million in damages. In 1996, a dam failure in Alton, New Hampshire, resulted in one fatality and $55 million in damages.
Also in 2005, a near-failure of a privately owned dam in Taunton, Massachusetts, caused evacuations of parts of downtown and ultimately led to the dam’s removal.
Recently, the American Society of Civil Engineers released its 2014 Vermont Infrastructure Report Card, focusing on the condition of our state’s key infrastructure, including dams. There are 1,219 dams in the state inventory. Of these dams, only a small minority, about 150, is used for hydroelectric power generation, flood control or water supply. Another 300 or 400 provide recreation.
The remainder languish, unused and deteriorating, useless and in no shape for rehab or re-use. Most of these are decades old, some a century or more. Of those inspected last year, one-third were classified to be in poor condition. Moreover, there are potentially a large number of unlisted small dams that need to be accounted for and assessed.
Just from an economic standpoint, Vermont is not in a position to incur the fallout from dam failure, let alone the potential danger to human life.
A large number of Vermont’s dams are on private land and are privately owned. If the dam provides the owner with some benefit, it is reasonable to expect the owner to pay for inspection of the dam to ensure public safety. Only a small number of people actually own dams, but this limited benefit could come at a significant public cost if the dam fails. These dams are the responsibility of those private landowners, who must maintain them and make any needed repairs. It also means that these owners are the ones who can decide to remove their dams.
If one derives a benefit from a dam, there should be little complaint about a fee that will ensure it is safe for the people below the dam. If owners decide they derive no benefit from the dam, then they should consider why they own the dam in the first place and whether it should be removed for the safety of the public and to restore the environment.
It is important that Vermont fully assesses the number, location and condition of dams in the state, and questions of public protection are addressed. The dams must be inspected and maintained, at the cost to those who receive the benefit of their use. Dams that provide no benefit should be removed to protect the public and to restore the river or stream to its natural state.
Clark Amadon is council chairman of the Vermont Council of Trout Unlimited. Jared Carpenter is a delegate in the organization. The Vermont Council of Trout Unlimited consists of five state chapters for a national organization dedicated to protecting watersheds and cold water fisheries.