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Why the Warren timber crib dam should not be rebuilt

By Chris and Laurie Kirchen

There has been much talk recently about building a low-impact micro-hydro facility by the timber crib dam in Warren. We presume that this project is conditioned upon reconstruction of the timber crib dam; otherwise, there would be inadequate head (i.e., the vertical distance the water falls) and flow (i.e., the quantity of water flowing) to power a generator.

While we are supportive of sustainable energy production and recognize that there are many in the community who support this project, we believe that we have a unique perspective on the proposed project's impact because our house (sometimes referred to as the "Mill House") is immediately adjacent to the dam.

When we bought the Mill House 10 years ago, we recognized that the future of the dam was a divisive issue within the town. At that time, we did not want to find ourselves in the middle of a town tussle about an issue for which we had a limited knowledge. So, we agreed with the prior owner's plan to cede the dam to Mac Rood and, subsequently, the Warren Village Dam Preservation Trust (WVDPT).

However, having now lived by the dam for 10 years, having listened to the pros and cons about its reconstruction and having experienced the damage to our property as a result of the dam's presence during Tropical Storm Irene, Superstorm Sandy and other weather events, we have come to the conclusion that the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) was right last year when it concluded that dam should not be rebuilt. Instead, it should be allowed to crumble or, better yet, removed forcibly, returning the Mad River to its natural state. Rebuilding the dam has many negatives that are not generally recognized. It:

1. Increases flooding risk for property owners adjacent to and immediately up river from the dam. The dam raises the water above its natural level by over 15 feet by our house and by five to six feet further upstream during flood conditions (according to an estimate from Friends of the Mad River). As a result, during recent storms (especially the microburst in 1998 and Tropical Storm Irene in 2011), our property suffered significant damage. When we bought the Mill House, we believed that the 1998 storm created a 100-year flood (i.e., a flood that occurs only once in 100 years). This is a risk that we were willing to take. But it now seems evident that these events can be expected to occur much more frequently. The recent deterioration of the dam has reduced this risk somewhat because water now flows through holes in the dam, thereby lowering its surface level a little. Complete deterioration or removal of the dam would greatly reduce the flooding risk.

2. Creates a liability for the trust, the town and other parties that take or approve steps to rebuild the dam. Any flooding damage to adjacent properties resulting from rebuilding the dam, which would increase its effective height above its current level, would be the responsibility of those who undertook or authorized the project. We have paid for past damage to our property out of our own pocket. However, if others now take steps that would cause future damage, we will look to them for compensation.

3. Upsets the natural ecology of the river, especially reducing the migration of fish and disrupting their spawning grounds. The dam prevents fish from migrating up and down the river and destroys their natural spawning grounds. The wide and shallow area above the dam elevates the water temperature, which is inhospitable to fish. As a result, what should be a healthy trout habitat is almost completely barren.

4. Perpetuates an embarrassing eyesore. Stand by the informational sign on Main Street and look at the dam. It is an eyesore that will not improve with time. Given the state's prohibition on removing gravel from streams and rivers, the dam will continue to trap gravel, sediment and river trash. While some people in the community believe that the dam is a tourist attraction, we have been in a perfect spot to observe the actions of passersby. The bottom line is that the covered bridge is the key attraction, not the dam. If the dam were removed and the accumulated gravel washed downstream, the riverbed would look much better – like the Freeman Brook by The Warren Store. This would be much more attractive than the silted-up mill pond between the covered bridge and the dam, especially with all the logs, spare tires and other debris that get trapped by the dam. And, while some believe that the dam has historical value as a source of power for the original mills in the village, we believe this is better left to history books that can communicate more accurately the dam's role in the development of the village.

5. Encourages trespassing on the private property at 440 Main Street to get a good view of the dam. The dam cannot be fully viewed from Main Street or the proposed location of the generator house. Passersby cannot get a good look at the dam unless they trespass on other people's property and struggle down to the natural bridge, where photographers and painters have created their iconic works.

6. Generates an inadequate return on investment. The capital cost to rebuild the dam combined with the low water flow for most of the year and the low compensation paid by the electric utility would not generate an economic rate of return. While grants may cover most of the capital cost, the basic economics do not change. And, any meager economic benefits do not come close to offsetting the aforementioned negatives.

As Friends of the Mad River concluded 10 years ago, "The Warren Dam has a highly negative impact on the fisheries ecology, flood hazard and geomorphic stability of the Mad River." Further, "From the data regarding river health and flood hazard mitigation we conclude that the historic value of the timber dam should not supersede the objective data that clearly shows that the dam has a significant [negative] impact on the Mad River, the surrounding property and is in danger of catastrophically failing."

We understand that some will be disappointed with our position. However, rather than searching for justifications to rebuild the dam, we believe it would be better to search for ways to hasten its demise. In sum, we believe it is time to put the dam issue behind us and let the Mad River return to its natural state.

Chris and Lori Kirchen live in Warren.

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