Dam release schedule change upsets paddlers

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(Host) A popular Southern Vermont whitewater event won’t take place this spring.

Paddlers are upset that the dam release on the West River in Jamaica – usually the last weekend in April — was scrapped due to a policy change.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Water sounds, footsteps)

(Keese) This is where the fun starts, in a normal whitewater release year. I’m standing on top of Ball Mountain Dam on the West River in Jamaica with Phil Morrison, the project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers.

We’re looking down the steep packed-earth slope to a wedge in the mountains where the river is fed by a pipe that passes through the dam.

(Morrison) "So if it was whitewater release you’d have all kinds of spectators, and you’d see people going down the trail carrying their kayaks or whatever. And then they’ll go into that pool just under the tunnel right there."

The paddlers will hover in a quiet eddy waiting for the dam operator to release tons of stored-up snowmelt through the tunnel. Then they catch the wall of water coming out of the pipe and ride it downstream three miles to Jamaica State Park.

For decades the Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the dam, has coordinated its twice annual release dates to accommodate whitewater enthusiasts.

(Still) "Routinely over 1,000 paddlers come to Jamaica. They stay at the state park, they stay at local inns, there’s traditionally been a church supper. The school has a food stall where they sell food and they raise money for the schools."

Charles Still is with the paddlers’ group Friends of the West River. He says the two day events add $150,000 dollars a day in tourist dollars to the local economy. But not this year.

The reason has to do with young Atlantic Salmon. The protected fish – which Vermont has invested heavily in trying to restore — must also travel under the dam through the tunnel, to get from the reservoir behind the dam to the Ocean. The journey is a key part of their life cycle.

Brian Fitzgerald is an ecologist with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

(Fitzgerald) "A couple of years ago we obtained new data, … that showed that young salmon who are out migrating, were moving earlier than we had thought in the spring. And it’s important so that the salmon get out of the reservoir, that the depth of the pool behind the dam is not more than 25 feet."

(Keese) The pool needs to be much deeper for the white water release. So the Corps, on advice from the ANR, announced that the release would be in Early April, before the salmon migrate downstream. Charles Still of Friends of the West River says white water groups complained that local camp grounds aren’t even open that early.

(Still) "But it ended up not mattering because they released all the water on April first without telling anybody."

Still says what irked the paddlers most was the fact that the Corps and Natural Resources Agency seemed unwilling to discuss the matter and work things out.  Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Tim Dugan says that while environmental concerns are a high priority, recreation and tourism are important, too. So the conversations will take place before next spring.

Dugan also says the fall release, which is also a tourist event, will happen as usual this September.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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