« All News

History of Vermont’s Dams

March 25, 2024 by Addie Hedges

Following European settlement in the region, dams were used to fuel industry by harnessing the power of rivers. Most of Vermont’s dams were constructed to power mills, using the energy generated by flowing water to produce goods. Other common uses were drinking water supply, irrigation, and ice production. However, as technology advanced, more efficient power generation methods made these structures obsolete. Today, many of Vermont’s over 1,000 dams have fallen into disrepair, with 28% of the dams inspected by the state being in poor condition and posing a high or significant hazard as of 2022.  You can view the data collected by the state about dams on the Department of Environmental Conservation’s website

These defunct dams no longer serve a purpose, have not been maintained, and are in deteriorating condition, creating a serious hazard for downstream communities should they fail, which has led to statewide efforts to remove such dams. In addition to the human impacts of unmaintained dams, another motivation for these projects is to reduce the ecological impacts caused by dams. These old dams alter water and sediment flow, disrupt fish passage, and raise water temperature. 

Pioneer Street Dam in Montpelier.

The Wrightsville Dam outside of Montpelier, the Waterbury Dam, and the East Barre Dam are all large flood control dams that hold enormous amounts of water back from flooding downstream communities. Despite having similar ecological impacts as the smaller dams, these dams are not a subject of removal due to their benefits to humans and state and federal regulations that make such projects extremely difficult to carry out. State or federal agencies maintain these types of dams to ensure safety and can make a difference in flood levels downstream during large events.

Now that many dams no longer serve their purpose, removal is becoming a viable and necessary option to improve the health of river ecosystems and protect human communities. The flooding in the summer of 2023 showed the hazards presented by these dams and, sadly, provided examples of the damage caused by the failure of small dams. One of these examples was the Hand’s Mill Dam in Washington. This small dam had been abandoned, and the rushing water following heavy rains was too much for it to handle. The dam busted and sent an influx of sediment and water downstream, picking up a trailer and destroying an abandoned home site. Luckily, there was minimal concern since the property was vacant. Still, others have caused larger human impacts, and similar situations are bound to happen as we see more frequent and heavy storms due to climate change. These examples have sparked conversations about the future of our dams and how we can restore our rivers to minimize the impact of flooding in the face of climate change. 

Browns River Jericho Dam with floodwater

We’ve got more to say on the subject, so keep your eyes peeled for more about dam removal and Vermont River Conservancy’s upcoming projects.

Stay in Touch

Subscribe and get the latest on VRC’s initiatives and events.