Dam Meeting Scheduled for August 2nd

Construction Postponed

Repairs to the Lake Fairlee dam will not be made this summer.  In spite of the best efforts of the three towns that share Lake Fairlee (Fairlee, Thetford, and West Fairlee) the original schedule proved too ambitious.   A plan is in place, however, and we are hoping to remove and replace the dam in the summer of 2015.

Engineering studies have been completed, and initial plans prepared by DuBois & King, consulting engineers.  They conducted geologic surveys, collected hydrologic data, and explored construction options and permitting considerations.  They provided an initial cost estimates, which PC Construction has refined.  The repair will include the placement of a temporary cofferdam, the complete removal of the existing dam, and the installation of a properly engineered dam in the same location.  During construction the camp that straddles the middle of the dam will be jacked up, then lowered onto new pilings when the new dam is in place.

This summer DuBois & King will begin the next phase of planning, which involves working with State and Federal permitting agencies to develop final construction plans.  Once the final plans are drafted and the permits secured, we will invite bids from qualified construction companies.  Then we will select the best proposal, and award a contract for the work, conditioned on the successful passage of the required bond issues.  The voters of the three towns will be asked to approve issuance of the bonds and the creation of a joint Lake Fairlee Commission at Town Meeting next March.

The first of a series of public meetings will be held on August 2nd at which interested citizens can see the plans and learn about the proposed agreement among the towns and the cost sharing arrangement.  We will explain the economic importance of the lake to the towns, and its impact on property taxes.  Three other meetings will be held during the fall.

Group Hired to Find Lake Fairlee Dam Fix

(Published in The Valley News on Wednesday, June 5, 2013)
By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer
[please read the original article at this link]

Thetford — DuBois & King, Inc. has been hired to find solutions for fixing the ailing Lake Fairlee Dam, and a Fairlee selectman said he expects the public will have the chance to comment on proposals by summer’s end.

The Randolph-based consulting engineers were chosen last month through a competitive bidding process to determine options for fixing the dam — which has a small camp house perched on top of it — as well as the associated permitting, scheduling and construction costs, said Fairlee Selectman Frank J. Barrett.

“We’re hoping by later in the summer, we’ll be able to have some public information hearings,” Barrett said. “It’s been very rewarding to see three towns work (together) well.”

The dam, which is more than 200 years old and sits on privately-owned property in Thetford, controls the water-line for Lake Fairlee, which has shoreline in Thetford, Fairlee and West Fairlee. Barrett said that if the dam were to fail, it could reduce the shoreline by 8 to 12 feet, leaving smelly mud-flats in front of $63 million worth of property around the lake’s edge.

A group of officials and residents from each of the three towns has been meeting for more than a year to determine a course of action.

Town Meeting voters from each of the towns approved contributing a total of $30,000 to fund a preliminary analysis of the dam and possible fixes. Four other organizations along the lake — the Aloha Foundation, which operates camps on the lake; the Lake Fairlee Association, a nonprofit which, among other things, oversees milfoil reduction on the lake; Camp Lochearn; and Camp Billings — chipped in $5,000 apiece, for a total pot of $50,000.

The DuBois & King contract cost about $25,000, Barrett said. The remaining money will go toward expenses associated with the next steps.

Barrett said he hopes the towns might put forth a bond vote by 2014 and see construction begin by 2014-15.

Towns to Vote to Raise Funds for Dam Study

The Tri-Town Committee wants to raise $50,000 to fund the initial engineering studies and legal work needed to determine just how to fix our dam.  It has raised $20,000 from Aloha, Billings, Lochearn, and the Lake Fairlee Association.  It is asking the towns of Fairlee, Thetford, and West Fairlee for the rest, allocated roughly in proportion to the tax revenue each derived from lakeshore properties.  Voters in each town will be asked to approve this funding on Town Meeting day in early March.

Charlotte Albright, the Upper Valley correspondent for Vermont Public Radio, interviewed Skip Brown and Ridge Satterthwaite for a recent local news feature.  HERE it is on their blog.  There is a button near the upper left that will allow you to listen to it.

Tri-Town Committee Makes Progress on the Dam

We have been concerned about the condition of Lake Fairlee’s dam for quite some time, and have written several posts about it.  (For example THIS POST summarizes a lot of the history of the dam)  About a year ago the Selectboards of Fairlee, Thetford, and West Fairlee met together for the first time to address the dam and other topics of mutual concern relating to the lake.  In early 2012 the Tri-Town Committee was formed, as a forum to pursue these discussions.  It was agreed that this committee would have no legislative authority, but might make recommendations for action by the towns.  See THIS PAGE for more about the committee.   The committee has been meeting monthly, and some progress has been made.

We made contact with the current owner, who gave us permission to proceed with an inspection by an independent engineering company.  In late September Bethann McCarthy, a Senior Water Resources Engineer from Gomez and Sullivan, spent about two hours with us at the dam.

The auxiliary spillway. Note the long horizontal crack below the waterline.

The water level in the lake was well below the height of the spillway.  Water was flowing through the crack (above) and pouring out from several locations on the downstream face.

Water pouring out of numerous places on the downstream side of the auxiliary spillway

Bethann climbed around and examined every visible face of the dam.

A portion of the dam is under the house.

She cautioned us that this inspection was just a first step, that planning and permitting for any significant repair or rebuild of a dam like this is a lengthy process.  Lake Fairlee’s dam is not unusual.  There are humdreds of small dams in Vermont, and many of them are in disrepair like ours.

IN late October we received their report.  For the most part it confirmed our expectations, that the dam is in poor condition and needs reconstruction or repair within a few years.  It outlines next steps, including additional studies that will be needed to obtain permits for whatever work is to be done.  Visit THIS PAGE for details about the report.

Next Steps

  • The committee is taking this in steps, not proceeding hastily.
  • We don’t have all the information yet.
  • We are gathering information to help us make reasoned and thoughtful decisions, including:
    • Engineering studies
    • Economic data about the value of the lake to the towns
    • Expert advice on how to organize a three-town response
  • It will take some time before we will be prepared to come before the towns with final recommendations.



Dam Meeting Provokes Interesting Discussion

More than 40 people showed up at Horizons Day Camp on a hot Saturday afternoon to hear Roy Schiff, a water resource scientist and engineer, speak about dams in Vermont generally, and about our Lake Fairlee dam in particular.

Roy answers a question from the audience

Roy first directed us to the recently published Report Card for Vermont’s Infrastructure, which contains a summary evaluation of the approximately 1150 dams in the State.  LINK  (see pp. 11-15)   He put our dam in the context of other Vermont dams, explaining that it is unremarkable and somewhat typical in its age, history, size, and condition. He spoke a little about the permitting process for a dam like ours, any work on which requires approval by both the State and the Army Corps of Engineers.

We had given Roy an opportunity to visit our dam, both from the water in a kayak, and then from downstream on foot.  He was able to explain how it was constructed.  The older portion is masonry (stone), with a newer concrete top.   It is sitting on ledge, and its ends run into the earthen banks of the watercourse.  What is unusual about our dam is the structure sitting in the middle.

Because our dam is classified as “low hazard,” the spillway is required only to carry the amount of water expected from a 100-year flood.  Since the watershed that drains into the lake is about 20 square miles, the spillway capacity required would be about 1230 cubic feet per second.  This is almost certainly more than the present configuration, so it is likely that any repair or replacement of the dam would require a significant redesign.  There is no working low level outlet, which is required to manually lower the lake level for repairs.

The process of dam repair/replacement:

  • Survey first – takes a week
  • Analysis of alternatives – location, tye of structure, dimensioning to flow, spillways, abutments, hydraulics analysis, modeling how water surfaces will change.
  • Preliminary design – after one alternative has been chosen
  • Permitting – could be up to six months.
  • Construction
  • Certification (by the State)

When the audience began asking questions he answered candidly, with the disclaimer that these opinions were not based on a proper engineering evaluation of the dam.  He said

  • There is no way to know when the dam will fail, or how badly.  It is in need of repair, however.
  • If the dam fails, the water level in the lake will only go down 5 or 6 feet.  Nonetheless this could create significant issues for abutting landowners.
  • Dam construction is generally limited to the warmer months.  We will be challenged to get it done without impacting the prime recreation season.
  • The lake will need to be drawn down for any dam work, unless (expensive?) “cofferdam” is employed.
  • Installing a “low head” hydroelectric turbine is probably not an economical option in our situation.  If the dam were ten feet higher . . . also permitting requirements are more stringent.
  • When pressed, Roy opined that repairs on our dam might cost in the neighborhood of $100,000. (NOTE: see below)

The meeting lasted about an hour.  We expressed our gratitude for his help, and promised to keep in touch.

– – – – – – – – – –


Two days later Roy sent along the following thoughts:

I took a few more minutes and looked into dimensions and ideas we discussed to refine my off-the-cuff cost estimate.  I actually think that a more realistic ballpark for such a project is $300,000.  I think that my frugal side got the best of me when pressed in front of the crowd.  At this point costs could easily go 50% higher or lower, I just do not know without more information.

My thoughts after the talk lead me to recommend to you a two or three-step project.  Step 1 is a dam repair or rebuild feasibility study that will get you an alternatives analysis, initial regulatory feedback, and a ballpark cost opinion.  This study is important to allow you to resolve the unique setting with the camp on the structure and put some reality into the discussion to see what the fundraising requirement is.  It will also hopefully land on a preferred alternative to move forward from.  Step 2 would be design and permitting.  Step 3 would be construction.

Also it was suggested that some readers might not be familiar with the idea of a structure sitting in the middle of a dam. HERE is our first post about the dam from August of 2010 that should help.




Speaker Meeting – Lake Fairlee’s Dam

Saturday August 4th – 4:30pm – Horizons Day Camp

The Lake Fairlee Association is concerned about the status of the dam that maintains the water level in our lake.  We have invited Roy Schiff, a Water Resource Scientist and Engineer, to speak to us about dam history, construction and repair, and to help us understand some of the engineering and legal issues that we may encounter.  You may have heard Roy on Vermont Edition last February, when he spoke to Jane Lindholm about Evaluating the State of Vermont’s Dams.

There will be an opportunity for questions after the presentation.  Refreshments will be provided.  Horizons Day Camp is on Route 244 at the corner of Middlebrook Road.  Please park in the field 100 yards east, towards the boat ramp.

This event is open to all interested members of the community.

High Water over the Dam

On the day after tropical storm Irene, the level of the lake was as high as anyone remembers.

Click HERE to see a 30 second YouTube video that better shows the amount of water and its power (or click HERE to download it to your computer)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Spilway spilling

North portion of dam

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Read more posts about the dam HERE.

Pressure on the Dam in the Spring

Last summer we posted some photos of the dam that maintains the level of Lake Fairlee as part of a report on its condition.  Those photos were taken after a dry week in August, when there was little water flowing over the dam.  In mid April we had occasion to take more photos, at a time of significant rain and snow melt.  Although these pictures were not taken from exactly the same places (not possible, it turns out) they clearly show the marked contrast in conditions.

NOTE: You can click on the photos below for a larger image.

The first two photos show the southern portion of the dam (spillway) looking from the west (downstream).

Above taken in summer, below in the spring thaw.


The following photos look at the longer, northern portion of the dam.  The walkway to the house is high and dry.

In the second photo water is coursing over the top of the walkway.


The final photos are looking towards the house from the south.  The spillway portion of the dam is on the left.  These illustrate the difference in the water levels.

The water appears to be more than a foot higher in the second photo.


What these photos cannot completely convey is the volume of the water coming out of the lake, the continuous loud sound, and the stress this must be putting on our dam.

The Lake Fairlee Dam

Lake Fairlee owes its present size and shape to a dam that was first constructed over two centuries ago.  There was a lake here before the dam, but it was only about 80% of its present volume.   The lake is owned by the State, but the dam is privately owned.  If the dam were to fail, the water level in the lake would be considerably lower.  Instead of their beautiful lakeshore many property owners would look out on an expanse of mud, silt, and decaying plants.  The Lake Fairlee Association has long wanted to learn as much as we can about the condition of the dam, what should be done to preserve it, and what plans might be needed in the longer term.

The dam extends from left to right under the green house. North is to the right.

Ancient History

In 1797 the Vermont Legislature passed an act enabling the construction of a dam a the southwest corner of Lake Fairlee “in order to supply with water several mills standing on the stream which empties out of said lake and the supplying said mills with a sufficiency of water to be of great public utility . . . .” [note]  Eldad Post, perhaps with his son Aaron, built the original dam shortly thereafter.  In 1831 the lake level was raised, and again in 1904 or 1905.  At various times the rights of property owners abutting the lake have been considered, and at least once the dam owner “purchased flowage rights” from them.  The saw mill that originally was located right at the dam was removed to another dam 1-2 miles downstream in 1891 (just above Route 113 in Post Mills).

By 1939 the dam needed repairs, and “was rebuilt at the expense of the littoral owners [the Lake Fairlee Association] , with the consent and under the direction of the [then owner Walter A. Malmquist].”  [note]  That repair necessitated lowering the level of the lake by six feet, about which the Lake Fairlee Association had no complaint.  In the summer of 1941 Malmquist claimed the right to raise or lower the lake level whenever he pleased, and offered to sell to the Lake Fairlee Association “his water rights” for $20,000.  When they declined the offer, he then opened the gate in the dam for two months, and “large areas of mud banks were exposed, a mephitic odor was generated by the decaying aquatic vegetation, and the littoral owners were impeded in their access to the lake from their cottages and boat houses.” (mephitic means a foul smelling or putrid stench)

As a result of this dispute, and presumably at the urging of the Lake Fairlee Association, the State of Vermont brought suit against Malmquist to enjoin him “from unreasonably and arbitrarily drawing down the waters of the lake.”  Malmquist appealed on procedural grounds, claiming that the State did not have standing (was not a party in interest) so could not bring the suit.  He also claimed that lowering the lake could not be considered wrongful, as he only returned the lake to its historical level (before 1797).  Finally, grasping at a legal straw here, he argued that the original Act enabling the dam was unconstitutional.

The Vermont Supreme Court found Malmquist’s arguments unpersuasive, and granted the requested injunction.  Along the way they said a lot of other things that might be of interest to the reader, who can read the whole opinion HERE.

More recently . . .

Jurisdiction over the dam now resides in the Dam Safety Section, a small office within the Facilities Engineering Division of the Department of Environmental Conservation.  They are charged by Chapter 43 of Title 10 of the Vermont Statutes with periodically inspecting non-federal dams to ensure that they don’t “pose a potential or actual threat to life and property.”  If they find a dam to be unsafe, they “shall issue an order directing reconstruction, repair, removal, breaching, draining or other action it considers necessary to make the dam safe.”  The law authorizes further enforcement, even allowing the State to take the dam by eminent domain if the property owner does not remedy the unsafe situation.  You can find the relevant laws HERE.  I direct your attention especially to sections 1095 and 1105.

Pursuant to this authority, the State has inspected the dam from time to time, most recently in November of 2009.  The engineer found the overall condition of the dam to be “fair.”  They classified our dam as to its potential for downstream hazard as Class 3 (“low hazard”).  This classification means that failure of the dam will only damage farm buildings, agricultural land, or country roads.  It is possible that an examination of recent construction downstream might lead to reclassification.  Class 2 (“significant hazard”) applies when there are a small number of habitable structures or appreciable agricultural structures in the potentially affected area.

The report included various recommendations for the owner, which involve monitoring, inspecting, testing, and planning for repair.  Although it details numerous specifics in which the dam is less than optimal, we understand that previous inspections resulted in similar findings.  So far the owner’s policy of benign neglect has been sufficient.  You can download a copy of the report HERE. (pdf)

Map and pictures

Water leaves the lake from the west end and flows under Robinson Hill Road into a small cove, then over (and through) the dam about 300 feet downstream.  As can be seen in the photo at the beginning of this post, a house sits in the middle of the dam.  To the south (to the left in the photo above) there is a 30 foot section of dam, where a spillway flows over the top.  To the north the dam extends about 120 feet. 

The dam is visible, and the house straddling it, in the photo below.  It is the bright line in the forest near the middle of the picture.  The dark area to its right is the outlet of the lake, and the outlet stream can be discerned as an upside down “U” to the left.  HERE is the surrounding area in google maps as an aid in orientation.

Satellite photo of the dam (nearly vertical line near center)

I was able to see the dam from downstrean by walking in the streambed.  The day I took these pictures no water was flowing over the spillway, as it had been relatively dry and the lake level was low.  There was lots of water flowing through the dam, however.  The following two photos were taken from below the dam, looking back up at the long (northern) portion.

Water flowing through (not over) the dam.

Water coming through the dam

The ladder and the railing give an indication of the relative dimensions of this part of the dam.  Water is not seeping, but flowing freely through the dam at several locations.

Water coming through the dam under the house

This photo was taken from the same location, looking just a little to the right.  Here you can see quite a lot of water coming from the portion of the dam under the house.  Note also the cinderblocks stacked up to support the walkway where the dam has eroded.

Where do we go from here?

We are grateful to the Town of Thetford for calling for the recent inspection.  It suggests the possibility of seeking to have the dam reclassified, which would at least get it inspected more frequently.  The Lake Fairlee Association can educate ourselves and our neighbors about the condition of the dam, and its economic importance.  We can partner with the Town, offering volunteer help where requested, and at some point financial help.  We can continue to study the confusing statutory and jurisdictional situation that might arise should the dam give indications of impending failure.

We do not expect any significant action or change in the dam in the short term, but feel that clear communication and greater understanding can only help in the long run.

[ our dam’s State Identification Number is 206.01 ]

[Later posts about the dam are compiled HERE]