Hunting for Vermont’s ‘ghost dams’

Published: Nov. 22, 2022 at 4:05 PM EST
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JERICHO, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont’s rivers and streams are home to hundreds of abandoned dams that no longer serve a purpose. To call attention to the issue, the Vermont Natural Resources Council recently awarded the latest round of winners in its “ghost dam” hunting scavenger hunt, and a Jericho dam hunter is one of the winners.

About a quarter mile into the Jericho town forest, a local tributary to the Lee River is being held back. “It’s ghost busted,” said Sabina Ernst, a local resident and member of the town’s conservation commission. She says she literally stumbled onto the ghost dam. “I noticed this body of water and I thought, huh, I wonder if this could be a ghost dam?”

Ernst had just read about ghost dams through the VNRC and took some pictures, wondering if the old dam was documented. “Now that I know about them, they are on my radar for sure,” Ernst said.

Jericho Ghost Dam
Jericho Ghost Dam(WCAX)

A ghost dam, according to VNRC, is an old unmapped dam that no one is watching or monitoring for safety or ecological impacts. “They currently fragment a river system, so they are impounding water and creating, in this case, a pond,” said the group’s Karina Dailey. She wants to add these to a list of derelict dams that serve no current useful purpose.

The Jericho dam is likely a byproduct of the former Jericho Water District, according to Dailey. The goal is to remove them and restore the river system. “Thinking about not only the forest, but the water that connects us,” she said.

But more people than just those linked to this tributary stand to benefit. The water being held by the dam flows into the Lee River, the Browns River, the Lamoille River, and ultimately Lake Champlain.

“Wildlife habitat benefits, public safety benefits, and water quality,” Dailey said. She says ecosystems on both sides of the dam can be impacted by its rusting remains and water restriction. VNRC knows of over 1000 derelict dams in Vermont, but she says the ghost dams are harder to track. “They are a mystery, they haunt us.”

Dailey says she has found an unmapped dam in just about every town she’s looked and depending on where it’s located -- public or private land -- determines who tackles removal.

It’s something Ernst says she’d like to see done in Jericho if possible. “It would be really cool to come back whenever that happens in a couple years and really see how nature kind of takes back over,” she said.