Local News

Centuries-old dam removed in Rutland, pleasing safety officials and environmentalists

By Emma Cotton/VTDigger

RUTLAND — The Dunklee Pond Dam is gone, bringing relief to safety officials and the local ecosystem.

Where a pond once was, a section of the Tenney Brook now trickles through new riverbanks where workers have removed 4,000 cubic yards of sediment — enough to fill 644 dump trucks.

Built in the 1790s, the dam powered mills for linseed oil, lumber and pencils. Later, locals used the pond for commercial ice harvesting before it became a popular spot for swimming in the summer and ice hockey in the winter.

More recently, the aging dam caused flooding that prompted local officials to repeatedly evacuate nearby residents. Its seemingly-imminent breach kept Bill Lovett — Rutland City’s emergency management director and fire chief — awake every time it rained.

In 2019, officials deconstructed much of the dam after an October storm pushed it to near-collapse. Less than 200 feet downstream, a culvert beneath a four-lane-wide section of Route 7 sat vulnerable. As many as 28 houses could have been damaged if the dam had fallen apart.

After a years-long design and permitting process, members of the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Vermont River Conservancy led an effort to remove the dam this summer. The project cost almost half a million dollars.

“We can now celebrate Tenney Brook flowing freely, which it hasn’t done in 250 years,” Karina Dailey, restoration ecologist with the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said Thursday while presenting the completed project to reporters.

Lovett, who was in attendance, said he can sleep again.

Rutland City Mayor Dave Allaire said that, when the process began, some residents had concerns about losing the pond, which they considered an amenity, and worried their property values could drop.

“But I think when you stop, and you take a look at what the end result of this is, it’s truly remarkable,” Allaire said.

The city government will use the sediment removed from the river corridor to fill holes in sidewalks and parks, saving money in the long term.

Linking 13 miles of brook

Removal of the Dunklee Pond Dam has reconnected 13 miles of Tenney Brook, which leads to the Otter Creek, then Lake Champlain.

Over the years, native plants deposited seeds in the sediment along Tenney Brook, according to Todd Menees, a river restoration engineer with the Dept. of Environmental Conservation. Finally exposed to sunlight and oxygen, those plants should take root and grow, providing shade for trout that can now pass though. People who have worked on the project will also return to plant trees and shrubs.

The design of the river was modeled after another section of the river farther upstream.

“Over time, you’re going to see the return of this ecosystem,” said Roy Schiff, an engineer with Waterbury-based SLR Consulting, which was commissioned to design the project. “Usually, once we do an active project like this, in a year or two, it’s really going to start to come back to life.”

Schiff said the Dunklee Pond Dam removal was a fairly typical project, except that it’s very close to downtown Rutland, a major urban center.

Vermont has more than 800 dams that no longer function properly, according to the Vermont Natural Resources Council. Removing them is generally a good idea, Dailey said — it lowers water levels during floods, connects habitat for fish, and restores the natural streamflow cycle. Five have been removed in the last year.

River sediment contains phosphorus, a nutrient that’s considered a pollutant in high concentrations. Phosphorus is responsible for blue-green algae blooms in Lake Champlain, some of which are toxic, and the state has embarked on a multi-decade plan to reduce the nutrient’s levels in the lake.

If the dam had ever failed, those 4,000 cubic yards of sediment would have washed into the brook, and eventually the lake. Lowering water levels also helps the state plan for a future with increased precipitation.

The dam removal is part of a larger effort “to reestablish connectivity of our aquatic habitat and make our communities more resilient to a changing climate,” said Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

Lovett said he lives four blocks from the river, and takes nightly walks there with his son. Already, the ecosystem is thriving, he said — he’s seen herons, ducks, beavers, turtles and a bobcat.

“Over time, things evolved and this pond filled in, and it wasn’t an ecosystem that supported any fish at that point,” he said. “So this restoration’s incredible.”

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