On November 20, 2019

How Rutland averted disaster and saved a bit of history

A surveyor stands on the bank of Tenney Brook above Dunklee’s Pond dam, which has been partially breached according to plan, with complete removal in summer 2020.

By Julia Purdy

A quiet, little-known pond on North Main Street that once furnished ice has finally met its inevitable end, literally giving way to eventual stream and habitat restoration as well as relieving public worry about safety.

On Friday, Nov. 1, Markowski Excavating of Florence began the process of removing, one by one, the giant boulders that had been holding back Tenney Brook for over 150 years, as Rutland Emergency Management Director Bill Lovett and engineer Todd Menees of the state Watershed Management Division-Rivers Program looked on.

It was a close call. During heavy rains, water would pool in the low spot on Route 7 where Tenney Brook flows under the highway. The culvert, which is a mere 160 feet downstream of the dam, is about 25% narrower than new culvert standards and the city repeatedly cleared tree debris that plugged it, according to engineers.

The tipping point came with the Oct. 17 rainstorm, when “We lost a considerable section of the front face of the dam, about a 2-by-8 foot section fell off, just collapsed,” Lovett told the Mountain Times. Lovett said he could hear rocks crashing over or out of the dam. “The increase in flow through the dam was washing out what mortar there was left, leaving us basically a pile of carefully placed, loose rocks.”

The next rainstorm dropped less than an inch but caused another big section to drop off, “and the dam went from an emergent situation to an imminent collapse stage,” he said. “We called the state and made them aware of the situation. They were there the next morning with safety experts, hydrologists, Fish & Game, water quality people, and it was clear the dam had to go, there was no way to support it. The speed that it was falling apart just screamed for it to be done. … Basically, if the failure of that dam had happened, we would have endangered the infrastructure of the city, and downstream probably about 15 houses would have been damaged by this water. … We started looking at forecasts, we knew there was a storm coming last Thursday. The dam would not be able to withstand that additional water … and the decision was made it had to come down.”

With the blessing of the Board of Aldermen, who agreed to suspend the bidding process in the interest of speed, Lovett contacted Markowski. He told the Mountain Times that Markowski is uniquely licensed to operate in rivers ever since its work around Tropical Storm Irene.

“It just made sense to do it then,” Lovett said. “If we had not done it, the storm the next morning would have knocked it over surely.”

The dam had started to show its fragility during two storms in 2017. That year, Vermont Emergency Management (VEM)  and the Vermont Dam Safety Program notified the city that the dam was in “active-failure mode” and was “a Significant Hazard.”

“As time went on, we were a little over two years watching it deteriorate,” Bill Lovett recalled. “I’ve got close to 900 pictures of the dam and how it had changed, especially over this last two months and two weeks.”

The state Watershed Management Division-Rivers Program published a draft Purpose and Need Statement in June 2019, outlining in detail the problem, needs and options for dealing with Dunklee’s Pond and dam. The project goal was “to alleviate potential adverse flood impacts to the home, businesses, roads and the undersized culvert passing Tenney Brook underneath Route 7.”

Tenney Brook winds around below East Mountain, goes under Route 4 at the Norman Rockwell Museum and passes east of Seward’s Restaurant. Lloyd Davis, who was growing up in the 1930s, told the Mountain Times state fish hatchery pools behind the current lighting store (a former schoolhouse) in about the 1930s.

He lived on a 20-acre piece farm at 256 North Main St. and said the farms there had two bridges across the pond for hayricks to reach the hayfields on the hillside toward Bellevue Avenue.

Although a dammed pond appears in the 1869 Beers Atlas, no one knows when the original dam was built. It is known that Dunklee’s Pond furnished ice in the days of home delivery to the kitchen icebox, and an icehouse is marked on the Beers map, but ice harvesting ended during Davis’ mother’s time, and the icehouse was gone by the ‘50s.

Dunklee’s Pond has never been considered for inclusion in any historic registry, according to Polly Seddon Allen, a consulting architectural historian specializing in dams and waterways and based in Craftsbury Common. Allen is contracted with the city of Rutland to comply with Army Corps of Engineers requirements related to identification of historic resources. The dam site may be eligible, she told the Mountain Times.

Originally from Westfield, Vermont, she returned in 2016 after two decades away. Her interest is in “introducing people to their everyday landscape … There are so many layers in use and development, so many stories all around us.

“An interesting particularity of this case,” she said, is that both the pond and the dam will cease to exist. She photo documented the dam before its removal. She is hopeful that some remaining features may be preserved.

She will be working, under the aegis of the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, with Bill Lovett, the Rutland Historical Society, Vermont Historical Society, and local landowners. Allen asks anyone who has information or an interest in Dunklee’s Pond to contact her, Polly Seddon Allen, at polly.s.allen@gmail.com.

Beyond the immediate objective, the Purpose and Need Statement sets further goals of “restoring wetlands, restoring passage of fish and aquatic organisms and wildlife, restoring stream equilibrium and improving water quality in Tenney Brook. … This site will be a great example of how an urban setting can be restored to a ‘natural’ state and serve as a ‘refuge’ for species moving upstream and downstream. The aquatic species may include various insect species, snails, clams and crustaceans, various minnow species, brook trout and brown trout, frogs and salamanders and snapping turtles and garter snakes, etc. … An online database search indicates that the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife has no records of any rare, threatened, or endangered aquatic species in Tenney Brook.”

Bill Lovett concurs with the positive future of wildlife as a result of the stream restoration. “Some people have expressed concerns about the animals in the area. If you go up there now, the same ducks, the geese, the blue heron is up there, there was fox and raccoon and probably deer. Today the place is covered with tracks [in the mud].”

When Todd Menees and Roy Schiff, the design consultant for the project, walked up the streambed to locate where the stream changed from a “native channel” to an impoundment pond, they saw two deer, geese, ducks, and a great blue heron, Menees said.

After laying out five possible options and rejecting the first four as too costly and entailing too much future maintenance, the Purpose and Need Statement recommended complete removal of the dam: “full dam breach,” which would offer “short-term adverse impact for a long-term gain,” both environmentally and fiscally.

The report projects a four-phase timeline: Phase I, dam removal design with an opinion of probable cost; Phase II, lining up funding sources; Phase III, final dam removal (may begin in the summer of 2021 with a construction period of about two months); and Phase IV, site revegetation (may begin in 2021, stretching through 2024).

Funding for dam removal may be problematic. Based on the costs of two comparable dam removals in 2017 and 2018, it’s anticipated that Dunklee Dam would run about $300,000. The report points out that costly dam removals are generally shared among the dam owner, government, and nonprofit conservation groups. For now, the design phase is being 100% funded by the Vermont Ecosystem Restoration Program (ERP).

For now, the emergency is over, Lovett said. “We’re back to that original timeline, the 3-year removal and reclamation of the area. The critical part is over, we don’t have to worry when it is going to happen because it won’t. … The dam had collapsed into the streambed which was actually fortunate because most of that rubble was left there to help regulate the flow out of the dam and as a result it was kind of the perfect storm, everything that needed to happen could happen.”

Although some have mourned the demise of the pond, many others support the move, Lovett said, including the landowners, Snehal and Michelle Shah, removing the necessity for eminent domain. Public meetings are planned to take input, as was done successfully in resolving the water quality issue at Combination Pond.

In addition to meeting the goals of the Clean Water Act, Rutlanders may well like the outcome from an aesthetic and recreational viewpoint also.

“When I was a kid that pond was about 13 feet deep,” Lovett said. “In the ‘60s and into the ‘70s a lot of fishing was done. … Through the process of restoring the site, the public will have access to it, they’ll have input into what is planted, how it is planted. Mark my words, it’s going to be a beautiful site. The water is so clear you can see to the bottom, you haven’t seen that in a long time up there.”

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