Removal of the small Reber dam could be important for salmon habitat

Dave Minkoff, a fish biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, left, and Josh LaFountain of The Nature Conservancy at a small dam in Reber slated for removal in September. Photo by Zachary Matson.

Nature Conservancy Discovers Thousands of Obstacles at Lake Champlain

By Zachary Matson

The dam behind the Reber Volunteer Fire Department near Willsboro is so small it’s not counted in the state’s inventory of more than 500 Adirondack dams, but removing it could potentially restore six miles of spawning habitat. Atlantic salmon.

The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan to remove the structure in September, as part of a larger effort to restore stream connectivity in the Boquet River watershed and throughout of the Lake Champlain basin.

Removing barriers like dams and replacing undersized culverts expands important fish habitat and clears pathways to cooler headwater streams that could be a last refuge for brook trout and native salmon.

A Nature Conservancy project to map stream barriers across New York’s Lake Champlain watershed – and its more than 5,000 miles of waterways in five counties – shows that 51% of surveyed road/stream crossings were “moderate to severe barriers to passage of aquatic organisms.

The dam behind the Reber Fire Hall interrupts Cold Brook just north of the bridge on Sunset Drive. The approximately 12-foot-wide dam, thought to have been built in the late 1800s or early 1900s by a factory, rises about four feet above the creek bed, creating a steep waterfall too steep for migrating fish to pass.

Rivers and salmon series

A series of stories about the effect of dams on two of the park’s major rivers, the Boquet and the Saranac.
Dams have altered them, blocking the natural movement of fish for decades.


The fire department has traditionally used the backwater as a source of water to fill their tanks. A dry hydrant will remain on site and the project developers plan to install two new dry hydrant locations in other areas of the department’s coverage area.

“This will ensure improvements to local ecosystems as well as improvements for the local community,” said Dave Minkoff, a Vermont-based USFW fish biologist.

Cold Brook originates on Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain and flows south into the Boquet River, one of the first major tributaries reached by a fish traveling upstream from the lake. The dam is about a quarter of a mile upstream from where the creek meets the Boquet.

reber dam
The dam is owned by the Reber Volunteer Fire Department and is not included in the state dam inventory. Photo by Zachary Matson.

As the wildlife service works to restore Atlantic salmon populations on the river, testing various hatchery and stocking strategies, removing the dam could extend the habitat type by at least six miles. that the salmon are looking for to reproduce all the way to Cold Brook.

“Having connectivity to colder springs is going to be a big thing,” said Josh LaFountain, freshwater project coordinator with The Nature Conservancy in the Adirondacks.

The project serves a larger effort to improve stream habitat and replace undersized culverts with culverts designed for the passage of aquatic organisms. Undersized culverts also present risks during heavy rains and flooding.

The Essex County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Adirondack Land Trust are working on Cold Brook to establish upstream conservation easements to protect riparian buffers, restrict shoreline agricultural practices, and restore habitat with new plantations. Essex County plans to replace a culvert and crossing bridge upstream of the dam site, and The Nature Conservancy has identified additional culverts for replacement, LaFountain said.

The Conservancy’s “Barrier Assessment Tool” provides a comprehensive analysis of potential waterway barriers across a wide swath of the Adirondacks – the lakes, rivers, and streams that flow into Lake Champlain.

The mapping tool attempts to prioritize the 4,200 road/stream crossings in the catchment area. According to the analysis, another 179 dams were deemed to “do more to fragment river networks”. More than 40% of watercourse crossings had been assessed as of October 2020, and more than half of them created potential obstacles to aquatic passage.

The Conservancy worked to prioritize the removal of the Reber Dam in concert with firefighters, city officials, road crews and others interested in the project. Conservationists have stressed the importance of meeting community needs when pursuing a disposal project.

“There are a lot of moving parts for dam removal,” LaFountain said. “Overall public safety increases with overall ecological and resilience benefits.”

The Ausable River Association helped pilot the mapping project in the Ausable watershed and has worked for more than a decade to replace culverts and restore stream systems. Kelley Tucker, executive director of the river association, said engaging local communities is key to spreading projects. She said assessing, mapping and prioritizing flow barriers will help position the region for potential federal funding. The proposed environmental bond on the November ballot could also pay off for such projects.

While the state Department of Environmental Conservation maintains an inventory of thousands of dams across the state, the number of undocumented small dams is unknown. Even the smallest dams can alter local ecosystems.

Dave Minkoff - Reber
US Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist Dave Minkoff discusses the ecological benefits of removing dams. Photo by Zachary Matson.

“They interrupt the natural flow regime and sediment transport, obstruct fish passage, sometimes they’re more dangerous downstream, and you don’t know how many there are,” Minkoff said. “As many dams as we know exist, there are many more we don’t even know about.”

Tucker said there may be many small, uncharted dams in the Ausable watershed. She knows several properties along the creek where she lives. Tucker said more needs to be done to provide technical assistance and financial resources to owners interested in removing them.

“It’s definitely an issue we’d like to start doing more about,” Tucker said.


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