Removing Barriers to Healthier Rivers


As the splendor of another Appalachian spring unfolds, birds are not the only migrants returning to the mountains where they were born. Shad, a native fish once abundant in the mid Atlantic states, are moving up through the estuaries of the Chesapeake Bay on their way back to their natal rivers. Adult male and female shad, eager to reproduce, instinctively follow their olfactory senses to their place of birth perhaps hundreds of miles from their adolescent home in the open Atlantic. When the spring rains come, the white shadbush highlights the slopes of the budding Appalachian forest, and the white-throated sparrows begin their trek north. The warming freshwater alerts the shad that it is time to make their runs and spawn until they die.

This ancient spawning cycle connecting the nutrient-rich, salty Atlantic Ocean to the nutrient-poor freshwater streams of eastern North America still occurs, albeit with far fewer fish, in spite of two hundred years of logging, dam building, overfishing, and pollution.

Shad used to reach my home in Charlottesville, Virginia, in great numbers; the local Monocan Indians surely ate shad and Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved African Americans caught shad in the Rivanna before the first dams were built in the early 19th century. Today, however, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which annually evaluates the “state of the bay,” gave the shad fishery an “F” grade primarily because of dams and over-fishing.

After reading John McPhee’s book The Founding Fish, I realized how miraculous the lifecycle of the American Shad (Alosa sapidissima, meaning most delicious) really is. So I promised myself I would work to see shad swim to Charlottesville once again, as they had done for hundreds of thousands of years. Lucky for me, only one dam stands in the way today.

Dams are not forever

Bruce Babbitt, former Secretary of Interior, gave a speech to the Ecological Society of America in 1998 and stated, “For most of this century, politicians have eagerly rushed in, amidst cheering crowds, to claim credit for the construction of 75,000 dams all across America. Think about that number. That means we have been building, on average, one large dam a day, every single day, since the Declaration of Independence. Many of these dams have become monuments, expected to last forever.”

Dams do not last forever, however, and many have outlived their usefulness. Of course, many dams in the region remain important for flood control, electricity generation, and recreation. But while dams have historically been synonymous with progress, the costs of blocking thousands of miles of Appalachian rivers have been immense, from the loss of fisheries and recreational opportunities to the loss of important cultural ties to our local rivers. Thus, there are good reasons to remove dams of questionable usefulness. Efforts to remove dams can be successful when their life is clearly over, and, while difficult, even useful dams can be removed if the harm they are causing to to the river is bad enough.

The best known dams in Appalachia are those built to harness the mighty rivers of the Southern Appalachians, especially the Tennessee, New, and Kentucky Rivers. The Fontana Dam on the south side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the largest concrete dam in the eastern United States at 480 feet high. Built for flood control, hydropower and for lakes to supply nuclear power cooling processes, the dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority remain important to the regional economy and are not going anywhere soon. Still, there are thousands of abandoned mill dams throughout Appalachia that should be removed but have not been either because of a lack of funding or a lack of local interest in having them removed.

Many old mill dams, like the Woolen Mills Dam on the Rivanna River here in Charlottesville, are serious safety hazards to boaters and floaters. In addition, these dams can impair or even eliminate populations of anadromous fish (fish that are born in freshwater, mature in saltwater, and then return to freshwater to spawn) such as shad, alewife and herring, as well as catadromous fish (those that reverse the life-cycle of anadromous fish), such as the American eel. Dams also block in-river migrants like bass, rockfish, and sunfish. Even the smallest run-of-the-river dam can dramatically change the ecology of a river. These changes also result in lost economic value from the fishery itself and from river-based recreation and tourism. For example, dams are in no small part responsible for the current moratorium on commercial shad fishing in the mid Atlantic states.

For these reasons, dam removal is gaining credibility every year. Scientific studies show that rivers re-vegetate banks and reclaim tamed habitat surprisingly quickly. A study of a dam removal on the Milwaukee River in Wisconsin found a strong increase in the small-mouth bass population after the dam was removed.

Freeing the River

Hoping to boost fish populations as they had in Wisconsin, some friends and I formed the Rivanna River Restoration Committee, a project of the local Rivanna Conservation Society (RCS). After four years of diligent research, fundraising, and a $40,000 Feasibility Study, RCS has received the “green light” to partially breach the Woolen Mills Dam. The total effort will likely cost over $300,000, but thanks to state, federal and private funding to help restore rivers and fisheries, the funds are flowing. Community awareness about the Rivanna and the dam is growing as well.

State fisheries biologists and hatchery crews are stocking over 250,000 young shad fry in the Rivanna above the dam. They’re hoping, like so many others, that these tiny young travelers will return here in five or six years as adults—and not run head on into the Woolen Mills Dam.

“My dad used to take me fishing for shad on the Rappahannock River when I was a kid. I want to take my son fishing for shad, but if we don’t do something now the shad may not make it. What will I tell my son?” Those were the words of local angler and Rivanna Conservation Society member Hank Helmen, a native of Fredericksburg, VA. Hank’s boyhood fishing grounds are known worldwide as one of the best sport fishing spots for catching American and Gizzard shad.

Lucky for Hank, the Embrey Dam on the Rappahannock was recently removed to wide praise making this Blue Ridge river the longest free-flowing river in the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Wherever you are in Appalachia, the Piedmont or the Coastal Plain, you are probably not far from an old dam that no longer serves a useful purpose. While some of these may be historic landmarks that should be respected, most are just relics of a bygone era. Whether you fish, kayak, canoe, or simply love the idea of nature doing what nature does best, removing an unused dam can do wonders for your community, your soul, and the life of your local river.

Go for it!

To follow the efforts on the Rivanna River, visit:

Resources for dam removal are at:

To learn more about shad and shad fishing, visit:

Jason Halbert is a Program Officer for The Oak Hill Fund in Charlottesville Virginia, where he loves to canoe, fish, hike and help protect wild flora and fauna and their habitat.


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