The Saranac is beautiful river, mostly in the Adirondack Park boundaries. High Falls Gorge is a spectacular series of 4-5 waterfalls in a tight vertical walled gorge lasting only about a mile. A flow study revealed that all the falls except for the final one were runnable, and that the river could be reached on foot between each drop. The lands surrounding the Gorge are all owned by the power company and are covered with mature mixed hardwood forest. The Gorge has been dewatered for decades by the dam and diversion tunnel - with only a small amount of leakage entering the gorge. The exception is when flows exceed 850 cfs and water spills over the dam. This happens each spring, creating a “hell or high water” situation of virtually zero flows or high flows and nothing in between. The entire are was posted with NO TRESPASSING signs by the dam owner.
American Whitewater worked along side of the Adirondack Mountain Club from 2000-2006 to advocate for public access to the High Falls and Kents Falls Gorges. We also advocated for land conservation, robust base flows, and the potential for recreational releases should demand ever arise.
In January of 2005 a Settlement Agreement was issued for the Saranac Project. While the dam owner, NY Department of Conservation, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Trout Unlimited, and New York Rivers United were all parties to this agreement, AW was never even invited to talks. It was confirmed that the settlement talks were held without whitewater interests present because the dam owner was unwilling to grant public access to the river. Thus, an agreement was forged that did nothing for public access, provided no recreational releases, and requested that the river be subjected to another 40 years of being virtually dewatered.
The Settlement advocated for a continuous flow in the Saranac River that is so low that lower flows have only naturally occurred on 11 days out of the 31,965 days of flow records for the USGS gage for the Saranac at Plattsburgh. Thus, the Settlement Agreement requested a condition to the Saranac River that only would naturally occur 0.034% of the time. This paltry flow recommendation highlights a group of stakeholders lacking the scientific knowledge needed to make sound management decisions. It should stand as an embarassment to all involved.
AW and the Adirondack Mountain Club vehemently protested the settlement on ecological, recreational, and proceedural grounds. The comments we filed stacked up high on this project.
In 2005 FERC issued a new license for the Saranac River. In the license they granted public access and recreational releases, but allowed the paltry continuous flow to stand. The State of New York challenged the recreational releases and FERC removed them from the license (because they had no choice), requiring instead a whitewater study in several years. The State objected to release because they felt up to 6 flows of 250cfs were “high flows” and could have ecological impacts. The recreational releases we requested in the High Falls bypass were at a natural low summer baseflow and were not high flows in any way. Furthermore they were vastly lower than the high spills that the river experienced each spring. For perspective, while the flows mandated by the state only naturally occured in the river on 0.034% of the days on record, the recreational release volumes that they prohibited naturally occured on 18.15% of the days on record.
American Whitewater and the Adirondack Mountain Club did end a 5 year battle for public river access and flow information successfully. However, the real winner is the dam owner and the real loser is the Saranac River. The dam owner, New York State Gas and Electric can continue to keep the High Falls Gorge dewatered, impound many miles of the Saranac River under its 4 reservoirs, extract timber from the Gorge, and make lots of money in the process, while providing little to no public or ecological benefits to mitigate this impact. The river will have to wait another 40 years for a wiser group of stakeholders with the science and motivation to restore some of its ecological and recreational values.
In the short term though, American Whitewater is going to use the Saranac as a teaching tool to assure that such a mistake will never be made again. We will use peer reviewed models to discredit the flow recommendation and the study methods used to derive it.
Earlier this week American Whitewater appealed a decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to foreclose possible recreational releases on the Saranac River that was based on bad science, an inadequate review, and procedural problems. It is our hope that our appeal will confirm the need to rely on the best available science to make rational and transparent decisions - that ultimately protect rivers and their enjoyment.
The contacts below include staff and volunteers working on this project. Make sure you are logged in if you wish to join the group.
American Whitewater's detailed critique of the mandated flow regime for the Saranac River and the methods that lead to it, using the Indicators of Hydrologic Alteration tool.
Report on Saranac Flows Finds Missed Opportunities
August 27, 2008
AW Appeals a Bad Decision in New York
February 3, 2012