Friday, December 2, 2022

Saving Saranac River, salmon

By Jessica Landman

The Atlantic salmon travels from the Atlantic Ocean, through Lake Champlain and into the Saranac River — an essential part of Plattsburgh — to spawn. But since Europeans settled here, the Saranac River has been tampered with to the point of being unsustainable for salmon to spawn. 

There have been recent efforts made by people who care about the river and the salmon that use it to correct what has been done in the past. At The State of the Saranac River Symposium, hosted by Trout Unlimited Oct. 28, people gathered to present and discuss the many problems the river faces and possible solutions to bring back the salmon populations. 

Carrie Miller, a new employee at the Lake Champlain Basin Program and an attendee of the symposium, will be working on aquatic organism passage in the Adirondacks. 

“I just want to understand the status and the state of the river and what the opportunities are for making change and where the needs are and what’s doing really well,” Miller said.

The problems that occur with the Saranac River started much earlier, though. When Europeans came to North America and began settling, they created a huge impact on the river. 

The expansion of settlements caused two major problems, the first being logging. Europeans changed the landscape for farmland and made profits through logging. Plattsburgh was a transfer station for logs, making it a point for settlers with the creation of mills being created to accommodate the logs coming down the river. 

The second problem is iron mining happening all along the Saranac. Joshua Beatty, a librarian specializing in history at SUNY Plattsburgh, said that the exploitation of the river caused a great deal of long-term damage that resulted in smaller, less healthy salmon with flooding along the river. 

Another hindrance to the Saranac is the dams found along it. The Saranac was first impounded in the 1800s by the founding fathers of Plattsburgh, the Platts family. The closest operating dam is the Imperial Dam that was opened by Imperial Wallpaper Mill Inc. This is just one of the countless dams throughout the river that blocks salmon migrations from Lake Champlain and stops Atlantic salmon from entering the Saranac River. 

There have been initiatives to take down dams to help revive the river. Some dams, like the Indian River Dam, have been partly destroyed to allow water and fish to pass through. This has had untold positive impacts on those sections of the river. Timothy Mihuc, professor of ecology and Lake Champlain Research Institute director, said that he hopes that even more dams can be removed to open up the riverway.

There are also other ways the river is being restored. The manufactured gas production caused large amounts of tar to accumulate from the Broad Street bridge to Lake Champlain that now has to be cleaned up through the company New York State Electric and Gas.

Mike Flynn is a worker there who was actively involved in the tar removal project in downtown Plattsburgh.

His presentation at the symposium showed an in-depth look at the excavation projects. Starting in 2012, this has been a long and hard process. There are many steps they have to follow when completing these projects. 

First they have to investigate the river to find the exact areas of the major tar problems. Next, they must work with the community and regulatory agencies to design a clean-up plan. 

Then, the most difficult part of the clean-up process begins. The workers have to divert the water to expose the till underneath. Then they can begin excavating and cleaning the air from the ground. They have to split the project into three parts. OU-2, which runs from the Broad Street bridge to Bridge Street, has recently been completed and the next phase. OU-3, which will run from Bridge Street into the basin of Lake Champlain, is expected to start in approximately two years. 

“I work with the watershed alliance teaching about the river and looking at the different invertebrates in the water to determine the water quality health. Invertebrates can only live in water that is not polluted,” Kayleen Snyder, a graduate student for natural resource and ecology at SUNY Plattsburgh, said. “I get to see the actual effects of the pollutants in the water.” 

Salmon restoration projects are also in motion in the Saranac River and Lake Champlain. Within the past five years, an experimental pen-rearing Atlantic salmon has begun in Lake Champlain. Docks with pens that hold the Sebage strain of Atlantic salmon have been set up in Champlain. The effects of releasing these salmon will be seen next year when the Department of Environmental Conservation goes up river to capture and collect samples from salmon. 

Biologist Nicole Balk and her team of three that work for the DEC went out to the river Oct. 28 to collect samples. They caught 56 adult salmon in the Saranac, which is quite low compared to the number sampled last year — 85 salmon. These low numbers are cause for concern, and the DEC is going to launch an investigation into the possible causes of this decline in population.

Trout Unlimited has also launched their own project to help increase salmon in the Saranac River. This is a restoration project that focuses on the erosion tearing away at the banks, creating three miles of inhabitable water behind SUNY Plattsburgh’s Memorial Hall, next to the Saranac River Trail. Their plan is to implement J-Hooks and boulder clusters that will help divert the flow of the river and provide habitat for salmon. 

J-Hooks are man-made rock formations that stretch from the bank to the middle of the river at a 20-30 degree angle. These reduce the stress on the bank and increase the stress in the middle of the river. Boulder clusters are used to not only slow down the current and provide hiding cover and velocity refuge for the salmon. 

The survey work for this project is still in progress as the first attempt was unsuccessful due to weather. The plan is to get back into the river next week to complete surveying.

Dams that are located throughout the river are also large hindrances to salmon populations in the area. There are four dams in a three mile stretch from Lake Champlain to Kent Falls. 

The first dam being the Imperial Mills Dam. Located 3.1 miles upriver from the Champlain basin, it was built in 1855, effectively cutting off all salmon access to the rest of the river. David Minkoff, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist, said that a large annual salmon run to the base of the dam, but that raises a lot of questions as to where all those salmon go and where they spawn now. 

The next dam, close to a mile up river from Imperial dam is the Indian Rapids Dam. This dam was deliberately breached in the 1950s to allow water to pass through a small gap in the middle freely. This, however, causes just as many problems for the salmon. When the water is low, the salmon can not make the jump over the existing part of the dam and when the water is high, there is a velocity barrier with the amount of water that has to pass through such a small opening. There have been efforts to completely take the dam down, but those have not taken off yet. 

The Fredenburgh Dam, located five miles up river from the Saranac, was taken down, however, there are still large parts of debris like steel frames that still litter the water there. This creates unnecessary obstacles for the salmon as well as interfering with the natural stream function. 

The dam closest to Kent Falls is the Treadwell Mills Dam. There were different solutions installed at this dam, like a fish ladder that allows fish to bypass the dam and continue up river, but it was never used. The dam removal project that is being launched hopes to tear down all these dams and get rid of the debris, allowing salmon to freely move up and down the river by 2025. 

“What happened with the building of dams in the 1800s, we might be able to rectify it,” Mihuc said.

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