Lake Water Level and the Starbuckville Dam
Schroon Lake was formed when glacial rubble dammed an ancient valley, creating a 4,000-acre, 9-mile long basin. Actually there are two basins, separated by “The Narrows.” The watershed surrounding our lake is 202,575 acres, going from lake elevation of 807 feet to its summit at Dix Mountain, 4,857 feet. This mostly forested watershed is immensely and uniquely large in comparison to the size of Schroon Lake. After a rain event or during spring melt the lake level can rise severely and quickly, as landowners on the lake and river can attest.
In the old days dams were needed to send logs downstream and provide water supplies for tanneries, sawmills and gristmills. There were many dams erected in the Schroon Lake Valley. In the late 1800s industry, waterwheels and hydroelectric turbines required a constant supply of water. A plan was conceived to create a reservoir by building a 70′ high containment dam just south of Chestertown that would flood and connect Paradox, Schroon and Brant Lakes, raising the water level some 30 feet. Fortunately, The Great Schroon Lake was never to be, because residents against the plan came together to form The Schroon Lake Association and successfully scuttled the dam plan.
Today the water level of Schroon Lake is controlled by the reconstructed Starbuckville dam, 5.4 miles below the lake. Through oversight of the Schroon Lake Park District (SLPD) Commissioners, the goal is to keep the lake at a constant elevation of 807 feet. The gates operate automatically during summer and are left open from October 15 to May 15. They are also adjusted manually when needed to avoid flooding upstream and downstream.
While the objective is to keep an almost constant water level of 807 feet, taking into account the size of the Schroon Lake Watershed, this becomes no small feat. Additionally, the 5.4 miles between the lake and the dam restrict the outflow of water. The Adirondacks, as elsewhere, is seeing more erratic weather patterns and more intense storms. An inch of rain can result in a foot or more rise in lake level. Lake level fluctuations have a great impact on many species and their habitats and bankline destabilization and eroding shorelines. Additionally, damage to property, homes, docks and retaining walls results when lake levels are erratic.
On April 21st the Schroon Lake Steering Committee held a public meeting with hydrologist Gary Wall from the USGS to discuss possible solutions to Schroon’s water level problem. It was immediately determined that there is a paucity of historical information as to how storm impacts and lake levels relate. It was suggested a lake level monitoring system be installed at the north end of the lake. This wouldn’t solve the present day problems, but would hopefully offer up solutions for future stakeholders to make wise decisions. The drawback is such lake level monitoring systems are expensive to install and maintain, costing up to $17-20,000 annually. Though offering no immediate gratification presently, this may be an important investment in the future of Schroon Lake and generations to come.
Additional points of concern were the gates at the dam are not sufficient in size to accommodate water flow during high water events, and that perhaps another set of gates on the other side of the dam should have been installed. ESSLA members accompanied Mr. Wall during an on-site visit to the dam. Tom Luciano of the SLPD gave an overview of how the dam operates.
Another meeting will be scheduled later in June or July, where Mr. Wall will return to observe river conditions and then offer an analysis of what, if anything, can be done to achieve more stable water levels. ESSLA is very active in working to explore every available option. Addressing the water level issue on the lake will reduce impact on those above and below the dam.
Drone footage of the Starbuckville Dam and Schroon River was filmed and edited by Pat Vidas. Thanks to Bill McGhie for his contributions to this article. More info on Schroon Lake and River can be found in the Schroon Lake Watershed Management Plan at essla.org.