Derelict Dam Removal Opens New Habitat for Wild Trout

By Bret Ladago, fisheries biologist in the Fish & Wildlife Department

Photos by Brett Ladago

Friends of the Winooski River has completed plans to remove a crumbling dam from Bull Run in Northfield, opening up more than 25 miles of high-quality streams for wild trout. 

In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene caused Bull Run to run wild. It tore through the recreation area at The Woods Lodge and deposited a lot of mud in the pool. It took until well into the summer of 2013 to restore the pool and lawn to usable condition, just in time to be destroyed by another heavy flood.

The dam was constructed in the 1920s to create a reservoir for swimming and boating at a private summer camp. The reservoir was drained in the 1970s, leaving a broken dam with tons of sediment backed up behind it. The property now belongs to Jonathan and Lisa Burr, who operate The Woods Lodge. Their land has been badly damaged by flooding over the past decade, and they look forward to removal of the dam and restoration of a more natural stream through the scenic forest surrounding their lodge. 

“We lost the ability to access the river and the banks and to promote that as an amenity for our guests,” said Lisa Burr.  “This project will give us an accessible natural area for our guests to enjoy Bull Run, and hopefully bring more anglers to Northfield.”

Plans to remove the dam include the removal of more than 20,000 cubic yards of the sediment that has built up behind the dam over the past century. The Burrs’ swimming pool will also be removed during the project. A new channel will be constructed for Bull Run, with trees and shrubs planted along the stream and throughout the floodplain to encourage the stream to settle into its new course; to provide shade, because fish like cold water; and to improve habitat for wildlife and birds. 

The presence of the deteriorating dam and large amount of built-up sediment is a major risk to downstream habitat, water quality, private property, and infrastructure.  If the dam fails, the mass of sediment would suddenly flow downstream, making the water turbid and smothering fish habitat.  The sediment would fill the channel and displace water, which would cause more erosion of downstream land. The erosion would eat away at private property and could damage roads and bridges.

One important goal for removal of the dam is to naturalize sediment transport so that material regularly moves downstream during floods. A sediment-starved channel, which is common downstream of dams, can lead to down-cutting and bank collapse. Sediment naturally moving down the river channel is important for maintaining bank stability and for creating in-stream habitat. Gravel rolling down the river bed over time creates important spawning habitat for wild fish.  A natural river without dams is a safer and healthier river.  

Bull Run is home to abundant wild (naturally reproducing) trout, including brook trout, brown trout, and rainbow trout. Dams block fish movement and interrupt natural stream processes that provide good habitat and food for fish. Trout move for a variety of reasons and have been known to travel long distances to spawn, seek food, or find cold water. 

A recent study within the Battenkill in Southern Vermont showed movement of brown trout of up to nine miles. As dams block this movement, trout can no longer move upstream to find suitable spawning habitat, escape warm water temperatures, or seek adequate food. By removing the Camp Wihakowi Dam, the connection to upstream habitat will be restored and that will improve trout populations throughout Bull Run.

The design work has been completed by Milone & MacBroom of Waterbury, the same firm that engineered the removal of the East Burke Dam and the restoration of the Dog River floodplain at the Water Street park in Northfield. The work was funded by grants from the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department and the Department of Environmental Conservation. Friends of the Winooski River will seek permits and funding for removal of the dam in 2019. 

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