Monday, November 9, 2020

The ups and downs of the Saranac River

Over the summer, long before any hint of fall and far before the fall of snow, I spent a while on the phone talking about the ups and downs of the Saranac River.

The Saranac was dammed way back in the late-1700s and hasn’t been the same since. Now, a series of dams along the river cause dramatic changes in the flow and elevation of the river. Those changes, the ones that started over 200 years ago and continue to this day, upend the lives of fish and insects in the river and make it hardly the sort of wild river it at first may appear.

The summer conversation piqued my interest and set us off on a line of reporting that readers of the print Explorer have already seen and online readers will see in a series that started on Sunday.

My colleagues and I have studied the Saranac, interviewed people along it (at a distance or wearing masks), and then branched out to see how the Saranac compares to other tributaries of Lake Champlain, like the Boquet River.

The one thing I kept coming across is how poorly understood the Saranac can be. I talked to and heard from dam operators, regulators, scientists and anglers who each know a piece of it well, but the Saranac lacks the sort of watchdog that looks after it from headwaters to mouth.

Our reporting is focused on salmon, which once came into the Saranac and Boquet but were wiped out of Lake Champlain in the mid-1800s. For the last half century, there’s been attempts to bring them back, though the hatchery salmon would still run into obstacles, like the Imperial Dam on the Saranac. We’ll explore some successes and some failures. Subscribers have seen some of these stories and photos, but there will be more appearing gradually over the rest of the month.

The Union Falls dam on the Saranac River. Photo by Benjamin Chambers.

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Ry’s weekly Water Line newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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

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