Swanton: Hydro eyed at village dam

Hydro plan, fish passage up for review

By Elaine Ezerins

Staff Writer

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The Facts

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SWANTON VILLAGE — The village’s board of trustees has received a project bid to produce electricity and construct a fish passage at the lower Swanton dam.

The dam, part of the village landscape since 1920, has been the subject of much debate over the last several years as state officials have attempted to convince the village to remove it to allow fish to travel up the Missisquoi to spawning grounds at Highgate Falls.

Swanton Village, however, has taken a different path.

Reginald Beliveau, the village manager, said that the deadline has passed for private firms to submit bids on the development of the lower Swanton dam. He said Recurrent Energy group of North Bennington, had been selected.

“At this point, we have to write a letter of intent to be negotiated and submitted to the board of trustees for approval,” Beliveau said. The letter of intent includes analysis of the dam and a list of projects the Recurrent Energy would like to accomplish, such as a powerhouse and turbine to generate electricity.

The move to revitalize the dam is, however, in conflict with proposals to improve the fishery. According to a state Fish and Wildlife report, spawning habitat for Lake Champlain’s migratory fish would increase 99 percent if the dam was removed.

Beliveau, however, argued that the dam is an important part of Swanton’s history and culture and the village could get it up and working again, instead of tearing it down.

“There is the opportunity to establish a good fish passage there,” Beliveau said. “There is the opportunity for some true renewable energy.”

“I also want it to become a tech center, a learning center,” he continued. “So within the RFP, our request is to make it a true renewable learning center. A functioning generation facility but also one where students can come and learn how hydroelectricity is produced.”

“We still plan on moving forward with repairs of the sluiceway pre-construction or pre any other activities with the lower Swanton dam,” Beliveau said. “But with spring runoff and everything else, we’ll wait until we get more nominal flow to initiate repairs. Basically you don’t want to put a diver in with fast running water.”

Swanton Village felt some pressure from the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife back in September when the agency threatened it 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 sluice gate, positioned below the crest of the dam, once carried water around the dam to power a factory and later an electricity generation turbine downstream.

In 2012, the damaged sluice way became a problem when a number of fish, including a few on the state-listed endangered species, died on the southern bank.

According to a letter from Lake Champlain International 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.”

“It saddens me to think that there are some people that choose to fight to take the dam down,” Beliveau said. “I think if we were to work as hard with each other as against each other, we would have a viable project by now and fish passage that we would be proud of.”

Beliveau said he learned some valuable information by the president of the Walleye Association. “I was told that that is the only stretch of river in the State of Vermont that shows natural repopulation of walleye. He says its about 30 plus percent of natural reproduction of walleye in that river.”

Beliveau said that if the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, Lake Champlain International and the Village of Swanton could work together, it would be a “beautiful marriage.”

“But at this point, I’m going according to the wishes of my trustees, so that’s the path I’m on,” he said. “They choose to keep it and I’m following their wishes.”

As of now, Beliveau is not aware of any state money to repair the dam. Since the village owns the dam in its entirety, the board of trustees will need to come up with a plan for how to pay for the repairs and development.