Located in the High Peaks Wilderness, the wooden Marcy Dam has been a popular stopping point for hikers, skiers and snowshoers for decades. It was severely damaged by flooding during Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011.
After the storm, DEC staff decided against rebuilding the structure because they estimated the work would be too costly and dams are considered nonconforming uses in wilderness areas.
“The present Marcy Dam superstructure and bridge is inappropriate for a wilderness setting; it is basically an “over-built” structure,” stated the High Peaks unit management plan, adopted in 1999.
The decision to tear down the dam by DEC was made public in January 2014. The decision drew a lot of attention because the Marcy Dam area is so frequently visited.
“Every hiker leaving Adirondak Loj for the High Peaks interior, not going to Indian Pass or Algonquin Peak, will pass through Marcy Dam,” states the High Peaks plan. Among the destinations beyond dam is Mount Marcy, the state’s highest peak at 5,343 feet.
While some people understood the decision, others were upset by it. Many found the dam aesthetically pleasing and a great place to stop for a break and have a snack or drink of water while taking in the views. Many thousands of photographs were taken from its wooden planks. People also lamented the loss of the three-acre pond that drained when the dam blew out.
“I would like to see the dam reconstructed,” said Paul Glick, a hiker from the Buffalo area on Thursday. “I’ve seen pictures at the [Adirondack] Loj here of the lake, and I thought it was quite beautiful.”
But many people also understood the decision by the DEC. In January 2014, Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), told the Almanack that the club took no formal position on the dam, but he supported 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.
The Ausable River Association also voiced support for the work this week. It posted on its website that the DEC dam removal plan was sensible and well thought out.
“Removal of the dam will restore natural flows to the river and greatly reduce the risk of a catastrophic failure,” reads a statement on the river association’s website. “A large failure of the dam would threaten hikers in the vicinity, especially on the new section of trail and bridge directly below it. A failure also has the potential of releasing nearly 100 years worth of sediment built up behind the dam. Such a large sediment release would threaten fish habitat for miles downstream. AsRA hopes that at the end of the removal project the remaining structure can be retrofitted to allow fish passage. Habitat fragmentation is a significant threat to our native brook trout and is a major focus of our work within the watershed.”
A team of five Student Conservation Association interns and Tate Connor, the DEC forester who oversees the High Peaks Wilderness, were responsible for the dam work this week. Their job was expected to take about three weeks for this first phase, but Connor said that the removal process went quicker than expected. The crew was scheduled to finish up Friday, just a few days after they started.
During this first phase, the workers removed the splash boards, top rocks for the first tier, first tier crib pieces, and the vertical side boards from the walls of the dam downstream of the spillway. The work caused the pond’s water level to drop between one and two feet. The work is being done in increments to allow sediment build up behind the dam to drain slowly, as the Ausable River Association mentioned.
“The pond itself is filled in with sediment and if you were to remove a big hunk of the dam too quickly, you could have a major blow out of the sediment,” Connor said.
Currently, most hikers get across Marcy Brook about a quarter-mile downstream of Marcy Dam using a bridge that was constructed in June 2012. Connor said in the future, hikers may be able to cross just upstream of the dam and the downstream bridge could serve as a high water bridge.
Wood that is being removed from the dam will be used for other projects in the nearby area, including bog bridges, Connor said. Useless debris will be flown out of the woods by helicopter.
The removal of Marcy Dam means that the only dam remaining in the High Peaks Wilderness is on Lake Colden. Flooding from Tropical Storm Irene delivered the final blow to the deteriorated dam at Duck Hole, while the one at the Flowed Lands was breached by a flood in 1979. The DEC decided against repairing those dams.
Marcy Dam was rebuilt by DEC in the early 1970s. Previously work on the dam was done in the 1920s or 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Connor said.