The unsung tale of a river's restoration

A movement to remove obsolete dams gathers force in the East - and fishermen are first to take notice.

Tearing down the Quaker Neck Dam in Goldsboro, N.C., yielded some immediate results: The unclogging of the Neuse River opened more than 900 miles of blocked spawning grounds to once-ousted Atlantic ambassadors like shad, striped bass, and even sturgeon.

An unexpected bonus was the emergence of giant "mud cats" - large local flat-head catfish growing huge on the legions of silvery visitors.

Above the counter at Jay's Grocery in Raleigh is the proof: Polaroids show men buckling under the weight of 55-pound cats, caught last year while trolling for stripers near Raleigh's Milburnie Dam.

"I like it with the [Quaker Neck] dam gone," says Todd Fite, who rents canoes and sells bait out of Jay's. "There's more bigger fish, a lot more variety, and people aren't afraid to eat 'em."

Once huge spawning schools shook their way up these lazy rivers all the way into the Blue Ridge Mountains, where winter-weary settlers welcomed them with open frying pans. Today on the Neuse, for the first time in 50 years, they can come all the way to Raleigh, a full 70 miles upstream from Goldsboro.

Although many of the nation's 76,000 dams still make power or provide flood control, more and more they are just plain unnecessary, river watchers say. And as local towns worry about the liability of orphaned dams, the idea of knocking them down is taking hold from Kennebec, Maine, to Spartansburg, S.C. Already, nearly 500 dams have been knocked over or dynamited in the past 15 years.

But while many are touting dam removal as a panacea for clogged rivers and obstructed fish routes, others caution that taking the old structures down can destroy established wetlands and may even create pollution as sediment is dislodged.

Small, but key

Large dam-removal projects in the West gain the most public attention, but most of the movement is actually coming from communities and activists wanting to bring back fish and revive long-lost river customs, says Steve Higgs of American Rivers, a Washington-based conservation group. That usually means taking out a series of smaller dams.

Many of the dams up for removal are so low they allow spring waters to rush over them, but that makes no difference to Atlantic spawners, which lack the agility of, say, coho salmon in the West.

"It's important to say that the movement is grounded in removing dams that no longer make sense," Mr. Higgs says. "In the end, you have to ask, 'What is our goal here?' And in more and more cases, people are realizing that if we remove the dam, we take away all of our worries. And we gain a free-flowing river."

Moreover, especially in the South, everyone from local town councils to the US Army Corps of Engineers increasingly see breaking obsolete dams as a way to flush out dirty rivers.

But as towns start looking at a string of old dams on Lawson's Creek, near Spartansburg, S.C., they need to tread carefully, says Jack Turner, a biology professor at the University of South Carolina at Spartansburg.

Dislodging old dams can unsettle tons of sediment, he says. It can also wreck wide swaths of wetlands used by migrating waterfowl.

Furthermore, many mill towns grew up with their dams, and see them as symbols of the industry that created the community. "In this little place called Whitney, outside of Spartansburg, there's an old dam that ran a textile mill," Mr. Turner says. "Now they're tearing that textile mill down, and a lot of people are talking about the role of the dam in the community."

Even those who fight to remove dams often have nostalgic feelings toward the structures that resist the rock-carving force of the water's flow.

When she was a teenager, Kelly Miller spent many a lazy afternoon on top of the Emerey Dam, on the Rappahannock River outside of Fredericksburg, Va. "It was about 35 feet tall and maybe 300 feet across," she says. "It was so tall, so you could easily do back flips off it without worrying about breaking your neck."

Now a member of American Rivers, Ms. Miller is helping tear the Emerey down. After years of study, town officials decided it had become a safety hazard and legal liability. It's being dismantled gradually to allow sediments to disperse down river.

Difference can be subtle

On the surface, removing dams doesn't always have a visible effect, though the revival of shad festivals in many towns has helped bring attention to the work. Despite the breach of the Quaker Neck Dam, the Neuse River looks much as it did before. Except for among the most astute fishermen, its newfound vitality is a secret.

But for Mr. Fite, the fishing has been so good since the dam came down that he's thinking about expanding his canoe business to include weekend river runs.

"A lot of the new people moving in don't know about this resource yet," he says. "I'm hoping they'll catch on soon."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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