Like some other small dams in Vermont, the dam on Lake Fairlee is old and in need of repair. It’s privately owned, but a three-town committee has been exploring ways to repair or replace it.
The 200-year-old stone dam in the Upper Valley was built to power a mill that no longer exists. Now the dam is leaking, and that concerns Skip Brown, a West Fairlee resident and member of a new tri-town committee studying the problem.
"If the dam should fail it will be a catastrophe, not only environmentally, and a loss of the natural beauty of the lake, but it will be an economic loss to the three towns that surround it, who depend upon the lake, on the tax base for the land owners on the lake and for the business that the lake draws to the three towns," Brown explained.
The dam is a concrete wall that keeps the lake from flowing into a stream. It’s in a tricky location. The private owners have built a camp at one end, where the wall meets land, and also cantilevered a boat house right on top of the dam. The owners say they cannot afford to fix the leaks. The three towns on the Lake, Fairlee, West Fairlee, and Thetford, are hoping to negotiate an easement to allow for repair or replacement of the historic structure. But first, the tri-town committee wants to commission a planning study. Ridge Satterthwaite, of the Lake Fairlee Association, says there should be careful testing and analysis.
"And in order to make a plea," he added, "and we are going to have to make a pitch to raise money to do this dam, you have to have a solid foundation, excuse the pun, on which you are building your request."
On Town Meeting Day, voters in each of the three towns will be asked to allocate about $10,000 towards a $50,000 fund that would pay for engineering and legal fees associated with the project. $20,000 has already been raised. While the dam has been slowly deteriorating for years, Skip Brown, of the tri-town committee, worries that another big storm-like Irene-could hasten its decline. That would mean lakeside property owners above the dam would see the shoreline recede.
"It’s clear that if the dam were to leak all the way out the lake level would drop between five and ten feet and the shoreline would recede some places many yards, some places not so much," Brown said.
Brown says a lower water level could cause unpleasant odors.
Vermont’s dam safety inspector says the leaky Fairlee Dam does not present any dire environmental or safety threats, but believes an engineering study is a good idea to explore the most cost effective solutions for making sure it doesn’t fail in the long term.