SWANTON – Last Friday the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife threatened Swanton Village with legal action if the administration did not take action to repair a damaged sluice gate that funnels water around the Lower Swanton Dam.
The current dam has been part of the village landscape since 1920 and a dam has existed at that point since at least 1790. It has been the subject of much debate over the last several years as state officials have attempted to convince the village to remove the structure to allow fish to travel up the Missisquoi to spawning grounds at Highgate Falls.
This latest saga deals with the gate which once carried water around the dam to power a factory and later an electricity generation turbine downstream. The sluice gate is positioned below the crest of the dam. When the river is low it funnels water to the northern bank, which became a problem in 2012 during a particularly dry spell. At that time, the southern bank was dewatered and a number of fish died including a few that are state-listed endangered species.
According to the a letter from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, “The Agency of Natural Resources has the authority to bring an enforcement [action] when a state threatened or endangered species is killed or injured as a result of the actions or failure to act of any person. … I ask that the Village act proactively to minimize the leakage that passes through this channel and keep me informed of your progress.”
The letter’s author, fisheries scientist Rod Wentworth, did not respond to telephone calls by press time.
In July representatives from the department of Fish and Wildlife, the Nature Conservancy, and James Ehlers of Lake Champlain International (LCI) came to a village trustees meeting to discuss the dam. According to Village Manager Reginald Beliveau, the group “ambushed the trustees” to discuss removal of the dam.
According to a letter from LCI in 2010, “The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and others are advocating for the removal of the Swanton Dam because it is a detriment to the health of the lake and, among other things, blocks fish runs that once passed from Lake Champlain to the spawning habitat below Highgate Falls.”
Beliveau said that this latest volley from Montpelier “feels like they want to take away my birthday or something. The dam is an important part of Swanton’s history and culture. They want us to fix this issue now, but what they really want is for us to tear it down entirely.”
Beliveau said that the water has not gotten low enough this year to result in any fish fatalities.
“I’m feeling pretty bad about this whole thing,” Beliveau said. “We’ve been trying to pursue generation at the dam, to get it working again.”
The Village was not fined in 2012 – the last time low water levels resulted in a fish die-off.
In an e-mail to Ehlers at LCI, Beliveau wrote: “I’m not a closed-minded person. This area is special to me, my job, my future, this community. [There are] always two sides to a story… Swanton has a side too.”
In an e-mail yesterday to Wentworth and the department, Beliveau asked whether there were any funds or grants available to assist in the repairs of the sluice way. Wentworth responded that he “did some checking around and we are not aware of sources of funding for this kind of work.”
“There’s no money out there to help us fix the dam,” Beliveau said, “but there is plenty of money to help us tear it down.”
Beliveau said the state told the village to hire an engineer and assess the costs of the repairs. He said he and the trustees are working on a solution.