When Tropical Storm Irene damaged Marcy Dam, draining most of the pond behind it, hikers debated passionately whether the dam should be rebuilt to restore an iconic vista enjoyed by tens of thousands of visitors over the years.
It looks like it won’t be.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation recently decided to dismantle the wooden dam in stages over the next five years.
DEC spokesman David Winchell said the cost of rebuilding the dam to modern standards would have been too costly and may have conflicted with the management principles for the High Peaks Wilderness Area. Those principles seek to minimize the presence of man-made structures.
Winchell said the dam’s benefits are merely aesthetic. “It provides no practical or environmental benefit,” he said in an email. “The ponded water upstream of the dam is mostly filled with sediment and does not provide habitat for fish. The dam prevents the movement of fish upstream.”
Marcy Dam is often the first rest stop for hikers and cross-country skiers heading into the High Peaks from Adirondak Loj. Visitors would gaze across the pond at views of Mount Colden, Avalanche Pass, and Wright Peak.
In August 2011, floodwaters triggered by Irene washed away the dam’s sluice gate, leaving a sluggish stream winding through a mudflat.
The flood also washed away a footbridge that spanned the dam. DEC does not plan to build a new bridge at the site. Rather, hikers and skiers will continue using a bridge built a quarter-mile downstream after Irene.
DEC opted to remove the dam rather than allow it to deteriorate. “A catastrophic failure would result in ecological damage from the release of the silt behind the dam and possibly result in injury or death of people,” Winchell said in the email.
Dismantling the dam in stages, he added, will allow vegetation to grow in the mudflats and stabilize the sediment, reducing the amount of sediment that will be carried down Marcy Brook. Eventually, the dam will be lowered fifteen feet. Presumably, the mudflat will become a wetland with a stream running through it.
Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), said the club took no formal position on the dam, but he supports DEC’s decision on fiscal grounds. He said DEC budgets about $325,000 a year for the High Peaks Wilderness, and rebuilding the dam might have cost several million dollars. “The department just doesn’t have that kind of money lying around,” he remarked.
As to the loss of one of the most photographed vistas in the High Peaks? “There are people who passionately want that view to be back,” Woodworth said, “but there is a growing number of people who appreciate nature reclaiming Marcy Dam and changing it into a different but still beautiful environment.”
Irene also destroyed the dam at Duck Hole, another iconic spot in the High Peaks Wilderness. DEC earlier decided against replacing that dam.
Stephen Williams of the Daily Gazette reported on the Marcy Dam decision on Sunday. The public has until January 23 to comment on the project. Contact Erin Donhauser at DEC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to read a story published in the Adirondack Explorer in 2012 about the philosophical questions raised by dams in Wilderness Areas.
The top photo of Marcy Dam was taken by Phil Brown the day after Irene. The aerial shot was taken by Carl Heilman II about a week later. The water has since receded more.