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How Croghan Dam Will Help Solve New York's Aging Dam Issue

By Mike Petroni

An astonishing 6907 dams impound water in the great state of New York. These dams come in a variety of sizes: from mounds of dirt less than a foot in height used to round out fish ponds to the 215 ft concrete Mount Morris Dam on the Genesee River which protects Rochester from seasonal floods. With 70,000 miles of rivers and streams draining 80-100 inches of annual rainfall, New York is a water world. The extensive New York State dam system manages most of it to serve the needs of New York's 19 million thirsty people.

Irrigation, recreation, navigation, power, drinking, cooling, flooding and fire protection cover the majority of purposes for those 6907 dams. Because of this vast system, New York boasts the largest production of hydropower east of the Rocky Mountains. 413 hydroelectric dams, including the St. Lawrence Franklin D. Roosevelt power project (generating 900,000 kW), produce 19% of New York's electricity with negligible emissions compared to coal, natural gas or petroleum fired power plants. In 50 years of operation, the St. Lawrence FDR project produced 335 billion kWh, preventing 175 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That's the energy equivalent to 580 million barrels of oil.

Dams are valuable resources managing valuable resources, but the picture isn't perfect. Some dams prevent the passage of migratory fish species; others flood beautiful gorges or dry up waterfalls. The most pertinent issue with dams, however, lies in age. 71% of dams in New York were built before 1961, making the vast majority of dams in the state obsolete and past their 50 year life expectancy.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has the charge of monitoring the dams. They classify each dam as A, B, or C hazard depending on the potential damage of dam failure with Class A rated minimal risk to a Class C dam failure potentially resulting in loss of life and damage to public property. Depending on the class of the dam, the DEC mandates dam owners to preform specific upkeep and management tasks like clearing brush from the structure, developing an emergency action plan and making repairs as needed. When dam owners fail to comply, the ageing dam infrastructure problem rears its ugly head. Either the owners must gather the necessary resources to repair the dam, which could cost millions, or the DEC will be forced to use tax dollars to remove the structure and the services it provides. In a time when money is tight, it's challenging to figure out a solution to the ageing dam problem that doesn't produce a lose-lose scenario for both owners and state.

In the small western Adirondack town of Croghan, the Lewis County Development Corporation has teamed up with St. Lawrence University, Clarkson University, SUNYIT, local officials, and engineers to form the Croghan Dam Restoration Initiative. Their goal is to develop a plan to save the Croghan Dam and provide a solution to the "old dam" issue in New York State. The 93 year old structure sits in the heart of the historic town. Once supporting 4 mills, the dam has been steadily holding onto the bed rock as three of the four mills were either closed or burned in the last century. The Croghan Island Mill remains to this day, producing hand crafted windows and doors with traditional mechanical hydropower from its waterwheel.

When I first walked into the Mill, I immediately noticed the noise. The entire place hummed like a beehive. John Martin, part-owner of the Mill, stopped his work to show us the powerhouse and explained over the sound of rushing water and turning metal gears how the water entered the penstock, turned the wheel which transferred power through a series of leather belts to the saws, sanders, and vacuums. The Croghan Island Mill is a historical treasure trove, one of the last operating traditional saw mills in New York, but it's in danger of closing.

The Army Corps of Engineers documented the deterioration of the dam in 1981 when the Croghan Dam was 63 years old. They noted problems with scouring, spalling, cracking, leakage, and piers tilting, In the past 30 years the state of the dam has continued to deteriorate without any repairs done by the three separate owners. The Village of Croghan and the Lewis County Development Corporation have attempted to attain grant funding and preformed a hydro feasibility study. The study determined a 35 year payback from electricity sales to National Grid, and no investments were made.

In the past year and a half, the DEC has decided to begin the removal process despite the restoration efforts. Without the dam, the Mill must switch permanently to electric power which will put them out of business; but they are not the only ones who stand to lose. The reservoir upstream provides water for local fire departments and the Interface Sealing Solutions sprinkler system. Homes will lose property value, and the park created on the reservoir will have access to mudflats instead of water. In the end, fish migration won't even be restored because of the two hydro dams a mile north and south of the site, as well as the other five power projects on the Beaver River. When the process is finished, Croghan will be left with an ugly drained reservoir and a dam with a hole in it, slowly clouding the river downstream with 100 years of built up sediments.

Despite the hydropower prowess of New York, only 6% of our dams generate electricity. With the cost of oil, natural gas and coal on the rise, why not optimize our own existing infrastructure to generate domestic renewable energy? How can we create lasting jobs in Upstate New York? With these questions in mind, the Croghan Dam Restoration Initiative has developed a plan to preserve these resources as well as create new jobs in Croghan.

Waiting on Governor Cuomo's desk for signing, bill 1149 expands New York's net metering policy to include micro-hydro systems. Net metering allows entities to turn back their electric meters by producing electricity from solar panels, digesters, windmills and now, hopefully, hydropower. In Croghan, this legislation will change the estimated payback period of the installed hydropower unit, it also allows for the direct use of that energy by an on-site business. Croghan could attract a new business with cheap renewable energy, or add value to the meat, maple and other agriculture businesses already established in Croghan.

Companies operating with renewable energy have a distinct marketing advantage compared to those who are still burning fossil fuels. The proposal to restore old dams in New York will create mills of the future with companies returning to the rivers and small towns. Governor Cuomo's New York Works Agenda could benefit from this proposal as it will create jobs upstate while also expanding the renewable energy production base. NYSERDA's goal of 25% renewable energy production in New York by 2015 could also benefit from this project. It might even help ease the migration of 20-35 year olds from the state by giving them profitable, renewable energy driven businesses to be proud of. Two million New Yorkers have left the state in the last decade.

Developing and operating small hydro systems is getting increasingly easier and more cost effective. Pipe style technology does not require dams. All in one automated powerhouses, tube and generator units have been built in the Netherlands. National level legislation, the Small Hydro Enhancement Act, aims to reduce the cost of licensing for mini and micro hydro projects. Hydro, once swept under the rug, is back and ready to optimize existing infrastructure rather than build more dams. So, instead of spending public money to destroy these resources, why not use that money to help towns, villages and local businesses develop existing sites?

The NYSDEC needs to start conducting their dam responsibilities with awareness of the entire system. They need to start asking, what is the most effective way to deal with the old dam issue that will not only benefit the environment, but also the economic and social health of our New York communities? The Croghan Island Mill represents a lasting, low-impact way of life. Instead of destroying it, why not replicate it? If their motivation for dam removal is purely ecological, then I urge them to ask, as I have, what will harm our environment more, leaving dams on the river, or continuing our reliance on fossil fuels?

Since January, the Croghan Island Mill has gone silent. The DEC's removal of stop-logs lowered the water level enough to damage the mills waterwheel. Owner John Martin uses his electric motor sparingly while he waits for good news from the Restoration Initiative. The Restoration Initiative waits for the pen of Governor Cuomo to sign Bill 1149 on net-metering and for the NYDEC to halt their removal. Upstate New York waits for jobs. America waits for domestic renewable energy. All the while, the water waits for no one, eroding the land and these dams as fast as ever.

During the 50 year anniversary celebration of the St. Lawrence FDR power project, the 2003 New York Power Authority Chief Executive Officer, Roger B. Kelly voiced, "Our challenge is not to construct a massive power project, but to build a strong and thriving North Country economy. It is not to tame a mighty river, but to harness the churning forces of a global community. It is not to make a temporary home for an army of construction workers, but to create a permanent home for our children and grandchildren - one with jobs and the quality of life that will enable them to stay and raise their own families here in northern New York."

The Croghan Dam Restoration Initiative shares the same desire, but on a different scale, focusing on local renewable power generation, thriving communities, and cooperation among state and town governments. We will create a new New York, but we can't do it alone.

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