NY officials hope removing dam will revive fishing
Old-time fishermen tell stories about runs of muskie, pike, walleye and smallmouth bass on the Salmon River where the fish were so thick they’d be stacked on top of one another like cords of firewood.
Present-day anglers are hoping those times will soon return after the decaying dam at Fort Covington is removed, allowing the Salmon River to flow freely into the St. Lawrence River for the first time in more than a century.
“Sportsmen around here are pretty excited about this,” said Rich Preall, a senior aquatics biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation in Ray Brook.
The dam is the first barrier on the Salmon River, located five miles from the confluence with the St. Lawrence River in Franklin County along the U.S.-Canadian border, said Stephanie Lindloff, a project co-manager and senior director for river restoration at American Rivers, a national nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting and restoring healthy natural rivers.
“The project will provide a number of benefits,” Lindloff said. “Certainly the public safety aspects are critical to the community. But we also believe the environmental benefits will be significant.”
The deteriorated and undersized dam is considered a hazard that has contributed to upstream flooding, said Pat Manchester, the town supervisor in Fort Covington, a community about 100 miles northeast of Watertown.
The concrete and stone dam is about 9 feet tall and 175 feet long, Lindloff said. It was built in 1913 by the Fort Covington Heat, Light and Power Co. to provide hydroelectricity to local mill operations, she said. The structure replaced an old timber dam built decades earlier that had failed during flooding, she said.
“It really hasn’t served a purpose since the 1940s when the power plant went out of operation,” she said.
The $200,000 project is expected to take about a month.
Construction crews have been preparing the site for the past several weeks and hoped to begin dismantling the dam this week, Preall said. If they can’t, the project may have to be put on hold until next June, after spawning season, he said.
Removing the dam will give small mouth bass and walleye access to at least another 10 miles of river for spawning, Preall said, and provide more spawning habitat for northern pike, muskellunge and the Eastern sand darter, a state-listed threatened species. It also could lead to the reintroduction of lake sturgeon and allow for easier passage of American eels to and from the St. Lawrence, he said.
There is some potential for ecological harm, Preall said.
Common carp currently cannot get past the dam and will likely push upstream once it is removed, he said.
“They tend to muddy up the water and the increased turbidity could perhaps interfere with the spawning of native minnows, which are a major food source for larger predators. But we don’t think the carp will stay in the Salmon River on a year-round basis. Usually after their spawning run they head back into the St. Lawrence,” he said.
Removing the dam could also allow some predators to travel into the slower moving sections upstream that are now stocked with trout, but Preall said experts also think that impact will be minimal.
“It’s a distinctly different river system upstream and not really a suitable habitat for walleye and smallmouth,” Preall said.
While many other states have initiated river restoration projects, Preall said dam removal is a relatively new process in New York, where only a handful of such projects have been undertaken.
“We are proceeding cautiously, learning as we go. Each dam project is unique because of its location and the species involved. But you can expect to see this as an increasing trend in New York,” Preall said.
In the Adirondacks alone, there are approximately 200 old, abandoned state-owned dams in need of repair or removal, he said. Nationwide, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates there are over two million so-called low-head dams, about 80 percent of which will have exceeded their life expectancy by 2020.
Two more dam removals are being planned for 2009 in the Hudson River valley near Newburgh _ one on Moodna Creek and a second on Quassick Creek, Lindloff said.
On the Net:
American Rivers: www.americanrivers.org
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation: www.dec.ny.gov
By WILLIAM KATES