Monday, June 27, 2011

Guest Essay: Why Croghan Dam Should Be Saved

What follows is a guest essay by Mike Petroni, a member of the Croghan Dam Restoration Initiative. Concern over the stability of the 93-year-old dam (on the Beaver River in Lewis County) has led DEC to lower the water level of the impoundment by removing stop logs to reduce water pressure on the dam structure. The DEC is planning to remove the remaining logs from the two-section dam in the coming week and eventually breach the concrete structure. The Almanack asked Mike Petroni to provide some background on why local leaders, historic preservationists, and renewable energy advocates hope to keep DEC from breaching the dam.

Straddling the western edge of the Blue Line, Croghan, New York, known for its exceptional bologna, is home to one of New York’s last remaining water powered saw-mills. Over the past few years, the Croghan Island Mill has been the center of a dramatic debate. The question: how will New York manage its aging small dam infrastructure?

Turning for over a century, the saw blades and water wheel at the Croghan Island Mill remind us of a time when people saw, heard, and harnessed the energy of the river in small operations. Since January, however, the mill has been silent. New York State Department of Conservation, responsible for inspecting dams and enforcing regulations, lowered the reservoir last fall by removing stop-logs from the “high hazard” 93 year old structure. They plan to remove the remaining stop logs on July 4th weekend. Without the water to turn his waterwheel, John Martin, owner of the Croghan Island Mill, has been forced to switch to electrical power. The added cost of electricity will put him under if the dam can’t be saved.

Local legend has it that in 1918, when the existing dam was built, every able-bodied citizen in Croghan worked in round-the-clock shifts to mix, shovel and pour the concrete. Hard to think of that happening in today’s world where it is increasingly difficult to find examples of whole communities coming together, working together, and recognizing common purpose. This dam and its story remind us of the combined power of community. Its capstones were laid with the idea of the common good, not individual enterprise. Having a reminder of this capability brings people closer together, knowing that folks have, can, and will cooperate on the communal level to address the needs of all.

Places like the Croghan Island Mill are invaluable to a village, town and community. As the three other neighboring mills on the Croghan Dam disappeared over the years, the Island Mill remained, holding strong in an era of steady change where conglomeration and outsourcing became more profitable due to the availability of fossil fuels. John Martin and his mother Delia produce specialized, hand crafted windows and doors while simultaneously providing the Croghan community with identity, with a tangible history. When telling stories about a place, when remembering important moments, changes and lessons, it helps to have a landmark to point to, a physical reminder. Without these monuments, memories tend to slip away.

Today a new community effort is underway. Landowners, county officials, fire departments, students, educators and environmentalists of Upstate New York have joined together in the Croghan Dam Restoration Initiative to once again rebuild the Croghan Dam. The effort aims to preserve the Croghan Island Mill, support local business and develop renewable energy resources.

In a statement to North Country Public Radio, Arnie Talgo, who sits on a number of local government boards including the Tug Hill Commission stressed revitalizing the Croghan Dam because it’s exactly the type of project we need in the 21st century. “Everybody talks about renewable energy. This is renewable energy,” he said. “And if we can’t do it here and make it work here, where are we going to make it work?”

A study released by St. Lawrence University Environmental Studies Department suggests leveraging renewable energy from the dam to encourage on-site business development. By rehabbing the dam with the addition of a hydroelectric generating unit, Croghan could use the energy to bring new business to town, stimulate local agriculture business, or work with universities to study important renewable energy storage technologies.

Despite the growing initiative to restore the dam, the NYSDEC has continued removal proceedings and the Town of Croghan wants to know why. In a June letter to DEC Commissioner Joe Martens, the Town of Croghan asked a number of questions in an attempt to demystify the NYSDEC actions. One of which asked if removal funds could be used for refurbishment instead. Repairing the dam would satisfy both the NYSDEC and the Town but no agreements have been made. The NYSDEC will continue with their planned July 4th removal of the remaining stop logs, but admit that no funding is available to breach the dam at this time.

For now, the Croghan Dam Restoration Initiative and the Town of Croghan have a little more time to gather resources for the estimated $1.5 million rehab. With over 5,000 dams in NYS alone, eyes are on Croghan. If successful in installing hydro electricity generation, Croghan could become a model for other Adirondack small towns with aging dams who want to stimulate economic development. If unsuccessful, more dam removals will be commencing soon. New York State needs to ask: is it worth the tax dollars to pay for the removal of these potential renewable energy resources?

In a June 24th press release, the Adirondack North Country Association announced their support for the restoration acknowledging the potential for renewable energy production expansion, job creation and community revitalization from the project. The Croghan Restoration Initiative has been supporting a bill passed this month by the state senate which allows net metering for residential and non-residential micro-hydro electricity producers. The 2009 New York State Energy Plan estimates that this measure could add 2,247 MW of hydropower and 1000 MW of hydro-kinetic energy to NY State’s portfolio by 2015. Net metering allows non-commercial electricity producers to sell their electricity back to the grid.

To get updates on the Croghan Dam Restoration Initiative, visit the Croghan Dam Restoration Initiative for Local Business and Renewable Energy Facebook Page.


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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

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