In 2008, Debbie Rosener bought a house and moved to Killingworth, a small town in the lower Connecticut River Valley. She planned for a quiet retirement. What she hadn’t planned for when she purchased the property was that she would also unwittingly purchase a dam in the bargain, a dam that was on the verge of collapse.
“The previous owner had been aware of the dam, but it’s not required to disclose [that], so Debbie was unaware,” explained said Sally Harold, Director of River Restoration and Fish Passage at the Nature Conservancy. “An owner has an obligation to maintain the dam in safe condition. People might think it is a waterfall, a natural feature or think the state must own it and maintain it when they see a property. Then they find out they have to inspect it with a licensed engineer every few years and continually maintain it.”
At present, there is no law in Connecticut requiring a landowner to disclose the existence of a dam – or the responsibility that it entails – to prospective buyers.
Only after she owned the property was Rosener told that it would cost her $50,000 to repair the dam, and that the repair was required by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said Steve Gephard of the Inland Fisheries Division at DEEP.
“Right now, if you are going to sell land, you have to disclose if there is asbestos, but not a dam,” said Gephard.
A bill was proposed in the last legislative session to remedy the lack of required disclosure, but it failed to make it out of committee.
“I put the dam bill in to have a reporting mechanism, so when someone looking at a property — especially some of the properties that are located in rural areas — that they are also taking on the responsibility of a recognized dam by DEEP,” said Sen. Cathy Osten (D-Sprague), who proposed the bill. “It didn’t pass because realtors asked for time to make recommendations. We will likely have their support this time.”
Osten expects that when the bill is reintroducted in the coming session, the legislation will have the support of both The Nature Conservancy and realtors.
“It’s a good way for buyers to understand the liability they are taking on. They are still likely going to buy the property, but it lets them know what a possible expense might be. It’s a good consumer bill,” Osten said. “It’s a good public safety issue too. You could take on a liability that you just don’t know about and the people who live downstream from those dams, if the dam could let go it could devastate them.”
The choice of repair or removal
Although Rosener’s situation may seem unique, there are 4,000 dams in Connecticut and most are located on private property.
“We are one of the most heavily dammed states in the nation, especially when you look at density,” Gephard said.
Most of these dams no longer serve a useful purpose. The mills they once powered are vacant or gone and the power they once produced is no longer harnessed. Removing a dam can actually save a property owner money – in fact DEEP has adopted a removal strategy to reduce costs, Gephard said. The state agency currently owns about 100 dams.
In the end Rosener chose to have the dam on her property partially removed, to the point that DEEP no longer classifies the structure as a dam, said Harold. Rosener was a recent arrival, but removal is not an easy decision for many dam owners and long-time townspeople more accustomed to the landscape with an existing dam.
“It was something we had to debate very seriously, my wife and I. The pros and cons of going either direction,” said Bill Rutan, a Stonington resident who had a dam on his property removed in 2012. “It was tough. My wife had lived here for 40 years and the pond was part of her life.”
The dam once formed a small pond in the Rutan’s backyard, today it has grown into a meadow with small shrubs and trees.
“At first it was a giant mud hole with a small little trickle of water running through it and we thought, ‘what have we done?” Rutan said. “But then, almost immediately, things started growing out of it. I don’t think it will be too much longer before it is a forest like the rest of the edges of the stream in this area.”
To remove the dam, the Rutans worked with The Nature Conservancy which was able to obtain grant funding for the more than $100,000 removal project.
“We can’t find a grant to repair dams, but we can find grants to remove them,” Harold said. “My position is Director of River restoration and Fish Passage. Part of my job is to identify willing dam owners where removal would open up habitat upstream.”
An accelerating pace
The major reason for removal – apart from safety and cost – is fish habitat.
Many of the 4000 dams across the state are relatively small – just a foot or two high – but they are still too tall for fish like the river herring to jump.
“A 6-inch barrier is just like the hoover dam to herring,” Harold said.
So far, fewer than 50 dams removed in Connecticut over the last 20 years, but that pace is accelerating. Currently, DEEP is removing about two dams each year, while other non-profit groups including the Nature Conservancy and the Connecticut River Conservancy are each removing as many as four every year in New England.
“The long-term goal is to protect and restore aquatic habitat and life. We want millions of fish in the river,” said Andy Fisk, the executive director for the Connecticut River Conservancy. “Before all these dams, fish couldn’t get over Bellows Falls (in Vermont), but they could get up there. We are reconnecting habitat to let fish do that again.”
Removing dams doesn’t only allow fish to migrate, but it allows sediment to move.
“What was a free flowing stream pre-dam was converted to a calm, still pond area and accumulated sediment. It increased the water temperature and reduced the oxygen levels,” Gephard said. “What we’ve noticed is that the downstream is actually starved for fine sediment because it all collected behind the dam. Sometimes we think of sediment as a bad thing, but you need some of it to protect and provide for spawning habitat.”
That sediment may also contain contaminants from a town’s industrial past which can wash downstream after an unintended breach or removal. For that reason, before a dam can be taken down, Gephard explained, the sediment must be thoroughly tested for brass, copper and other contaminants and often removed and brought to a landfill.
“These dams are a ticking time bomb anyway with contaminated sediment piled up behind [them],” Gephard said. “There is a lot of risk involved in leaving an unmaintained dam in place. A storm could easily come in and remove it for you without the careful procedure.”
Dams leave nowhere for excess water to flow during a storm deluge, but when a dam is removed and the river restored, the former pond becomes a flood plain actually protecting properties in the area. That helps the state better adapt to climate change.
For many owners of dams, the impetus for a removing a dam is more prosaic. The Rutans said they only started thinking about the problem of aging dams when their dam started to obviously fail during a major storm.
“Dams get neglected. It’s not that uncommon for it to sit idle and next thing you have a tree growing out of it, roots that are all entwined and now repair is nearly impossible,” Rutan said. “As these local dams age and start to experience the normal aging process it becomes more important to stay on top of things, they weren’t built to last forever.”