On Roanoke, rare partnership to manage a river

Fishermen, environmentalists and power company clash – then compromise – over water flows.

In this quaint town, the hottest item on the menu of the Cypress Grill, a down-home, wooden shack of a restaurant hugging the banks of the Roanoke River, is the "combo plate" featuring fried striped bass, herring, and perch.

"This river has been a faithful business partner," says proprietor Leslie Gardner in a thick Southern accent as a gentle breeze blows through the canopy of bald cypress and tupelo trees outside.

But gone are the days when Mr. Gardner, his wife Sally, and their four children could simply wade into the river in front of their 28-year-old, legendary eatery to net their customers' dinners.

"With our nets we used to be able to catch 100,000 herring in a couple of hauls, but now, even if you fish the whole spring and summer, you'll never come close to catching 100,000," says Gardner.

One of the main culprits for the declining fishstock: Erratic releases of water from a number of upstream hydropower dams built half a century ago.

The Gardners aren't the only ones with an interest in water flows from the dams. Luxury homeowners upstream who live along dam-created reservoirs want water levels to remain steady. Power companies, on the other hand, need to flush water through dam turbines at times of peak energy demand. Farmers want the river controlled to prevent flooding of their fields. And a paper mill downstream desires higher flows to keep intruding Atlantic salt water at bay.

Just a decade ago, these divisions between different stakeholders on the Roanoke might have been intractable, say locals. But now, an innovative effort at cooperation may show signs of a promising solution that could have national applications. By making concessions and working together to accommodate each other's needs, the parties have been able to gain more than they otherwise would give up. The compromises, though difficult at times, have helped the community strive towards a common interest: maintaining a healthy river.

"The public is savvier and more interested in environmental issues than when I started with this company 29 years ago. In my opinion, that's good news," says Bill Bolin, lead staff biologist for Dominion Generation, the corporation which manages two of the dams.

Even as the power company moves to incorporate environmental concerns into their business, environmentalists are making some acknowledgements of their own. Conservationists like Sam Pearsall recognize that tearing down big dams isn't a viable option. Mr. Pearsall oversees scientific research in North Carolina for The Nature Conservancy which has invested some $20 million to protect over 60,000 acres of cypress swamp along the river. But instead of engaging in a standoff with dam managers, Pearsall's organization has been trying to solve serious ecological problems by promoting "adaptive management," a model blueprint that imitates natural river flow.

The project took a major leap forward recently when consulting hydrologist Brian McCrodden devised a computer program that simulates different management options, showing how ecological benefits can be achieved while not significantly harming the interests of other river users. The cost was underwritten by Nature Conservancy and Dominion Generation.

"The cooperative model being crafted for the Roanoke is going to break new ground, and it could have national implications," Mr. Pearsall says. "However, where protecting the ecosystem is concerned, there isn't one magic solution."

The adaptive-management model may be applied elsewhere across the country where government agencies, power companies, and citizens groups are exploring ways to make dammed rivers more ecologically friendly. In northern Arizona and southern Utah along the Colorado River, for instance, the US Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies are being pressed by conservation organizations to modify flows from Glen Canyon Dam to re-create the effects of natural spring floods.

But making the transition to the plan in North Carolina has hardly been easy for all. For private companies that strive to deliver electricity on schedule, altering flows for green dividends and not just for profit has required a shift in thinking.

"I'm going to be honest. This has been a learning process and at times has been frustrating," Mr. Bolin says, noting that Dominion Generation is willing to bend some, but not if it means cutting significantly into company earnings.

He adds that, in order for his company to be open-minded, government agencies must be willing to give the companies they regulate more latitude to pursue green remedies.

Although Dominion, at the behest of North Carolina wildlife officials, agreed to hold spring flows high and steady to accommodate spawning stripers whose numbers have grown substantially in recent years, numbers of other fish – like herring and shad – have plummeted. Flows that benefit stripers also can have a negative impact on wild turkeys by submerging habitat where they nest. Of equal concern to Pearsall is that cypress seedlings have been prevented by high water from taking root, jeopardizing the future of the forest.

"We freely admit that maybe we in the scientific community don't completely understand everything that is going on with rivers that have been impacted by dams, but we're willing to look for answers to make the most informed decisions," Bolin says, standing on top of Gaston Dam.

Back at the Cypress Grill, Gardner looks to the river and says, "I don't know if the herring fishery will ever come back to what it once was. All we can do is continue to hold out hope, because what's good for fish in the Roanoke is good for our little restaurant."

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