The Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC) began demolishing the Mill Pond Dam in Colchester earlier this month. Built 150 years ago to power a sawmill, the dam went defunct in 1941 and has been out of commission ever since. It now functions as a money-sucking hassle for the owner and poses a danger for anyone wading in the wetland.
According to B.T. Fitzgerald, VNRC Dam Project and Vt. Dam Task Force coordinator, there are about 200 dysfunctional, privately owned dams like this one across New England. Only 36 dams have been removed in Vermont since records started being kept in 1996. There are about 21 active projects, one of which is at Mill Pond. But that’s just a small fraction of the problem.
“There are hundreds of small dams in Vermont that no longer serve any useful purpose,” Fitzgerald said in a VNRC press release. “They degrade water quality and aquatic habitat, restrict the movement of fish and other wildlife, and pose risks to public safety.”
For owner Kim Scofield, the dam turned from a quirky feature of a new house into a major financial burden. According to previous reporting by the Sun, the dam causes flooding in Scofield’s yard and basement, and the sediment build up in the water makes the stream bed feel like quick sand.
On top of an annual registration fee, Scofield pays hundreds in dam insurance, and any necessary repairs fall on her shoulders. According to the VNRC press release, the state Dam Safety Program classified the Mill Pond Dam as a “significant risk,” meaning that “there is potential for loss of life and ‘appreciable’ economic loss should the dam fail.”
In 2017, Scofield inquired to the state if she could install power turbines on the dam to make it functional again, but learned that, because the wetlands are protected, her only options would be to repair the dam or leave it alone. When Fitzgerald called her, asking if she would allow the VNRC to take it out, she was relieved. “Where do I sign?” Scofield recalled with a laugh.
“I won’t have to worry about my grand nieces and nephews hurting themselves in that silt,” she said. “We need to put our world back together; back to the way it used to be.”
As Scofield mentioned, another reason to remove the dam is to restore the lost habitat and wildlife in the Indian Brook area. Jim Shallow, director of strategic conservation initiatives at the Vermont Nature Conservancy, which partnered with VNRC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife to support the project, sees the removal as “evidence of the environmental community working together,” he said. According to Shallow, many species will likely benefit from restoration, including Northern Brook Lamprey, an endangered fish species that dwells in silt similar to that in Indian Brook.
Construction began in early August and is planned to finish by September to avoid disrupting Fall fish-spawning season. The team must remove 30,000 cubic yards of sediment before taking out the dam—that’s roughly the size of a football stadium at 18 feet deep.
“There is more sediment [at Mill Pond] than any other project I’ve ever worked on,” said Fitzgerald. He’s been a part of about six different dam removals and has kept a chunk of concrete from every project.
The sediment planned for removal contains about 17 tons of phosphorus, a naturally occurring nutrient that contributes to algae blooms and pollution in Lake Champlain.
“There’s a lot of design and science that goes into this process,” said Shallow, of the plan to carefully remove sediment and relocate it to avoid polluting the lake. The sediment will be moved to a gravel pit in Milton where the phosphorus should sink naturally back into the ground without risk of runoff.
Despite expressing excitement and relief over the dam’s removal, Scofield noted she feels a touch of bittersweetness. “I grew up here so Mill Pond was around when I was young,” she said, imagining what it might’ve been like if she could have brought power to the dam and restored the pond. But ultimately, she has no regrets.
Since construction started, Scofield said she often wanders over to the site in the afternoon, says hi to the guys, chats and watches the work. “It dazzles me how the heavy equipment operator uses that machine like his hand,” Scofield said dreamily. “I can’t wait for it to be done.”
The total project cost amounts to about $619,000—“plus a lot of staff time,” said to Fitzgerald. In addition to support from the Nature Conservancy and Vt. Fish and Wildlife, funding for the design, construction, and permitting of the project comes from the Lake Champlain Basin Program and the Vt. Department of Environmental Conservation. The plan is to remove the sediment, impound the dam structure, and establish a new floodplain and stream channel by September. Trees will be planted in the area the following summer.
For more information about other projects like this, working to remove defunct dams and restore natural habitats, visit freevtrivers.org.