City joins effort to take down Imperial Dam

P-R FILE PHOTOImperial Dam during spring runoff earlier this year. The City of Plattsburgh supports Trout Unlimited plans to remove the dam.

PLATTSBURGH — The Lake Champlain Chapter of Trout Unlimited wants Imperial Dam removed and the city is supporting the cause. 

Late last month, representatives of the local chapter presented to the City of Plattsburgh Common Council, referring to the Saranac River spillway as a Class C, or high-hazard, dam. 

Former President Donald "Don" Lee had told city councilors the dam was not only dangerous, but a barrier to Atlantic Salmon, blocking the breed's natural spawning site upriver. 

"I think the best option is to take the dam out completely," he had said. 

The Common Council recently approved a resolution that boosted that effort.

"The City of Plattsburgh joins and supports the efforts of the Lake Champlain Chapter of Trout Unlimited to petition New York State to remove Imperial Dam," the resolution says. 

"So that these safety deficiencies with the high-hazard dam will be resolved, salmon will re-gain their historic spawning grounds and ice-jams in the future will be mitigated."


Trout Unlimited has nationwide chapters working to conserve, protect and restore North America's coldwater fisheries and watersheds. 

Lee said the Lake Champlain Chapter was mostly focused on trout and salmon.

"We've been advocating for years to get the salmon up to their traditional spawning grounds, which is Kent Falls," Lee had told city councilors.

"That's a natural barrier and that's as far as the salmon used to go." 

But there were a few unnatural barriers, like Imperial Dam, that were in the way, leading Lee and others to believe the local salmon population had been landlocked.


Historically, mill or factory dams across the Lake Champlain Basin have blocked salmon populations, requiring some dam owners to operate fish ladders.

But most of the spillways are outdated and not in use, Lee said adding that Imperial Dam was a prime example. 

Once powering Imperial Paper Mill, Lee said the structure, now owned by Main Mill Street Investments, was out of commission with little to no hope of revival.

"A lot of places now are taking down dams that aren't being used," he said, "like they did in Willsboro." 

Initially met with some public pushback, that dam was torn down two years ago. 

"Now you're getting natural (salmon) reproduction down in the Boquet River — truly wild salmon," Lee said. "That's the first time in a couple 100 years." 

Which is what Lee hopes for the Saranac River, too. 


But re-generating the Atlantic Salmon population wasn't the only dam issue.

With its Class C rating, Lee said, that means the dam could lead to serious damage in infrastructure and even loss of human life. 

Lee believes that Imperial Dam was part of the cause of a local disaster not so long ago. 

In January 2018 he said, an ice jam there contributed to water spilling water over an earthen berm, damaging more than 20 homes at Underwood Estates mobile-home park.

The state later allocated some $7 million to get the families back into their homes and the City of Plattsburgh administered municipality funds for the cause, as well. 

"Had the dam not been there," Lee said, "I'm almost assured that it would not have happened." 


Lee said the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has suggested lowering the dam to get it away from its high-hazard rating. 

But, he told the Common Council, eliminating it would bring better results than just lowering it.

"If that dam ever goes out, you would still lose property, maybe not lives, but I still think it's a hazard," he said. 

And besides, he added, the DEC's solution would require a fish ladder at Imperial Dam. 

Though that effort was OK'd years ago, Lee said such a ladder was yet to be operated there. 


If the tear down process were to move forward, Lee said there would need to be a spot to put the backed up sediment. 

"There's 100 years of sediment, probably more, behind the dam," he said. "You can't just flush that down the river." 

"I think the best solution is to try and pump out a large amount of it." 

In its recent resolution, the City of Plattsburgh offered up some adjacent, city-owned property for that sediment treatment and storage. 

"It seems like we're not only putting millions and millions of dollars into this, but we're also taking the risk of liability if that dam ever did break," Mayor Colin Read said. 

"I guess I don't see the argument for not taking the dam out."


Eventually, Lee said Trout Unlimited will submit a petition to New York State for the dam's removal. 

The group hopes to get Clinton County, as well as the towns of Plattsburgh and Schuyler Falls, on their side first. 

"We're just laying the footwork right now," Lee said. 


Email McKenzie Delisle:

Twitter: @McKenzieDelisle

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