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.