Where has the water gone at Middlebury falls?

THE FLOW OF water over the Middlebury falls has slowed to a trickle this month, and people are asking why. The lower-than-usual water flow over the Middlebury falls results in a lot of river debris accumulating just over the falls and affecting the aesthetics of the area. Independent photo/John S. McCright

MIDDLEBURY — Whether you take a stroll past the falls of the Otter Creek in downtown Middlebury in the evenings or wonder over their beauty from Marble Works during lunchtime, the waterfall is an emblematic feature of the Middlebury community.

Over the past few weeks, however, the sight of the falls has changed: Very little water is flowing over and down the 18-foot drop.

“It is the lowest water flow that I have seen in all my time here,” said Fred Dunnington, who was Middlebury town planner from 1981 to 2013.

The cause for the low flow of water is apparently twofold — one natural and one human-made.

The dry summer this year is the major reason for the low water flow. Otter Creek water flow data collected since 1902 by the United States Geological Survey show that water levels are indeed historically low.

Over the past 120 years, the median discharge of water in cubic feet per second in Otter Creek for the month of July has mostly been between 400-500 cubic feet per second (cfs) with 450 cfs being the average discharge rate. July 2022 has seen the discharge rate be less than 300 cfs for most of the month with it breaching 400 only once. Clearly, it is dry this summer.

The second reason that less water is making it to the lip of the Middlebury falls is that a good amount of what flows down Otter Creek is being diverted to the sluice under the building at 54 Main St. The building and the sluice — a gate for controlling the flow of water — are owned by the Holm family.

The sluice gate has been visibly higher than usual, which reduces the flow of water going over the falls.

Anders Holm exercises full control over the sluice gate. The sluice was intended to divert water through a Central Vermont Public Service Corp. hydropower project more than 40 years ago, but the project didn’t get built on account of “competition from nuclear power,” Holm said.

The Holm family purchased the sluice and the site in 1982.

Since then, the Holm family “spent substantial capital,” Andres Holm said, to restore the foundations of the buildings and install the sluice gate to regulate the flow of water through their property.

More than a decade ago, the Holms pitched the plan to start up the hydropower project under the name of the Middlebury Electric Co. Town officials opposed the project, and it never got federal approval.

Holm explained that the sluice gate was opened this summer “to relieve the pressure of the river on our foundation,” especially after the effects of a town water pipe spill last winter on the stability of the building were unknown.

While, Holm claims that the sluice gate is opened to preserve the structural integrity of their building, others have contested such claims.

ENVIRONMENTAL DATA SHOW that there is less water flowing down Otter Creek this summer than in past summers and thus less getting to the Middlebury falls. In addition, a sluice gate under 54 Main St. is diverting a lot of water away from the falls.
Independent photo/John S. McCright

“The Holm family dreams of a great hydro-power project,” Dunnington said. “Anders wants the town to do something to promote the hydro project. He wants to demonstrate the site’s capability as a potential hydro project site by showcasing a high flow through the Holm flume.”

Holm himself claimed that issues on both sides of the river will be “remedied with the completion of the hydro project.”

Why is it there concern about hydro here?

Dunnington said there are two main reasons the diversion of water through the sluice should prompt apprehension from the community: economic and ecological.

“Hydro power will not generate enough power to pay back the investment,” according to Dunnington.

He also said that the peak time to generate power would be in the summer, which coincides with the low-flow period.

“No one is going to invest in it,” Dunnington said.

He added the state’s policy that restricts the amount of water that can be diverted to hydropower during dry periods would further damage the project’s viability.

“This prevents the Holm family to receive a Water Quality certificate for their hydro dreams,” Dunnington said.

The ecological reason the water flow matters is that having the flow over the falls re-oxygenates the water and is better for aquatic life, Dunnington said.

Holm, on the other hand, singles out “Middlebury’s centuries old water claims” as the root cause for the conflict. He disagrees with both economic and ecological concerns brought forward by Dunnington.

He claims that if the hydro power plant was built it would be capable of producing “7 million kWh of power,” and dismissed economic concerns.

Holm disputed the argument that his project could not raise capital.

“We applied for grants and received them, including top honors from the Vermont Clean Energy Fund,” he said.

Holm countered the environmental concern by claiming a hydro plant would help the local ecology.

“The plan will regulate water flow over the main falls and solve erosion issues on both sides” he said.

While Dunnington acknowledges that Holm might have some justifiable concerns, he wishes that Holm “reflects what the community might feel about the project if the falls continue to dry up.”

Dunnington believes “negotiating a balance between community concerns, low-flow periods, and hydro” is the only way to resolve this issue. However, this understanding, according to the former planner, has been “elusive for the past 20 years.”

Meanwhile, there is a 60% chance of rain on Thursday with a spate of sunny and dry weather after that.

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