Friday, October 30, 2020

Rivers and Dams

Over the past several months, I’ve begun to explore the role that dams play in the Adirondacks.

There are about 750 in the North Country. About 30 are a hazard with known safety problems. That’s the worrying part about dams.

But, at the moment I write this, about 21 percent of the state’s power is coming from some dam or another, making hydroelectricity one of the cleaner sources of power available.

“Cleaner” — not necessarily greener.

As a recent item in the Adirondack Almanack, the Explorer’s sibling publication, reminds us, some of our dams were hell to build. Over 12,000 homes were moved or destroyed in the 1920s to make way for the Conklingville Dam, which holds back the Sacandaga River to form the Great Sacandaga Reservoir, often called a “lake.”

People often forget that the many of the thousands of small lakes that dot the Adirondack Park are fake, the result of rivers twisted, slowed and held back by dams.

According to Jerry Jenkins and Andy Keal’s Adirondack Atlas, only 22 of the 55 most visited and settled lakes in the Adirondacks are natural or “almost natural.” The rest are either created or substantially enlarged by dams.

Some of these lakes are so obvious they become nearly invisible. The Village of Saranac Lake operates the Lake Flower Dam right in the middle of town, though unless there’s a flood or the water is low, it’s easy to forget what it’s doing — propping up Lake Flower and, when the turbines are running, generating power.

Some of the Saranac’s dams are out of sight and mostly out of mind, like the Bartlett Carry Dam on Upper Saranac Lake, which is on private property and inaccessible to the public.

Recently, I wrote a story about that dam and efforts to repair it following a 2018 emergency caused by a sinkhole. The Upper Saranac Foundation has taken care of the dam for the past several decades, making them one of the more obviously attentive dam owners in the Adirondacks.

That attention, though, can’t catch everything, which is why the 2018 incident exposed problems that the foundation is now trying to repair. The repairs, expected to cost about $1 million, should secure the dam for the next half century.

As I report:

The foundation is in discussions with the state Department of Environmental Conservation about chipping in to pay for the upgrades. The state owns land on the south side of the dam. The foundation will also seek money from the Town of Harrietstown, which includes most of the Village of Saranac Lake.

To make the case to the state, the foundation talks about all that the Bartlett Carry Dam does to prop up the lake. By holding back the Saranac River, the dam raises Upper Saranac Lake by about 4 feet, all the way back to Fish Creek Pond and Rollins Pond.  There, of course, are some of the state’s most popular campgrounds, which depend on good water levels.

To make the case to the town, the foundation can point to one of the Adirondacks’ largest communities, the Village of Saranac Lake, which sits on Lake Flower, which would absorb some of the flooding if the dam ever failed.

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Ry is a reporter who covered water-quality issues for the Explorer.

9 Responses

  1. James M Schaefer says:

    So about a third (26.8%) of the 2,800 lakes are “fake,” or reservoirs of sorts. I hope your research covers the benefits as well as the risks of these bodies of water. As you say, some 21% of the state’s power come from some of the hydroelectric sites. That is enough.
    I say let’s celebrate the some 2,050 real lakes that we should keep “forever wild” in the historic spirit of our preserve. Every resident has a stake in all 2,800.
    We need to keep the (damming) “Robert Moses” sympathizers at bay.

    • mjash says:

      Over 25% seems like “many” of the lakes… 🙂 The lakes that are forever wild likely (obviously) dont need a dam. The need for a dam and understanding of the tradeoffs have changed overtime – the notion of them being a “good” or “bad” thing – as we have learned more about the impact of such interventions. Arguably, they have contributed to the progress of New York generally but have been a cost to specific local concerns. Being that it can be quantified, there is always measured cost… cost of not having pristine wildness, cost of “dirtier” energy sources, balance of tourist dollars vs the reason they come.
      We should always seek to balance needs, wants, and the impacts of satisfying them by understanding and acknowledging the things we give up for what we get.

  2. Pete says:

    Conklinville Dam holds back the Sacandaga River

  3. James M Schaefer says:

    Until they need the bolus to purge the Hudson’s salinity above Poughkeepsie.

  4. James M Schaefer says:

    Impossible to put a price (cost) on wild or freedom. And forever is just that.
    Humans like to intervene because of their inherent value of control. All such interventions are time limited. And usually fail or we witness how Nature reverses them.

    The analyses by Ry should help us understand the price of doing nothing.

    • mjash says:

      Certainly that is not the case as we have put a price on “wild” which can be measured in the relative alternatives we forego. The price is high based on the likely economic impact that further hydro energy or open real estate development could bring but is currently deemed acceptable based on individuals and groups willing to pay for it. Just as freedom is not free neither is wild.
      Humans intervene to meet their needs or desires not just blind desire to “control nature” and as long as the interventions are thought worthwhile and maintained they will remain. It’s only things that have changed in the perceived worthiness or need that have been ill maintained or “returned to nature”. This is likely the state of many of the sites/dams that have been classified with a “hazard” designation. The value for them to continue to exist and be maintained has dropped or gone to zero. Whereas the Bartlett Carry dam will likely be maintained. It continues to serve a value greater than the natural flow of the Saranac River at that point.