Woolen Mills dam set for removal

By Seth Rosen
srosen@dailyprogress.com | 978-7245
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

For nearly two centuries American shad have had their migration up the Rivanna River blocked by the historic Woolen Mills dam. But this week that impediment will be removed, enabling thousands of fish to eventually return to this stretch of the river to spawn while also improving the health of the watershed.

On Wednesday, representatives of the Rivanna Conservation Society expect to begin breaching the 177-year-old dam, culminating six years of work. The rupturing of the dam will rehabilitate the fish habitat in the river and provide more recreational opportunities for boaters and fishermen, society officials said.

“The mantra being used is ‘bring the shad back to Shadwell,’” said Robbi Savage, the society’s executive director. “The dam has been a significant inhibitor to the shad coming back to their traditional home.”

Before the dam was built to power the nearby mill, shad used to inundate this section of the Rivanna. Shad are anadromous fish, born in freshwater but spending most of their lives in the saltwater of the Atlantic Ocean before returning to their rivers of origin to spawn.

Three years ago the society, in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, began a program of releasing hundreds of thousands of shad fry into the Rivanna at Darden Towe Park. In April, volunteers and school students set free 400,000 hatchery-raised fry into the river.

The hope is that the adult fish will return to the river in the coming years and be able to swim far upstream without the dam blocking their path.

“By taking out the dam, you provide the fish passage and restore the river habitat to its natural state,” said Alan Weaver, with the game department.

The breaching of the dam will remove a hazard and inconvenience for boaters and canoers, who have to get out of the river and go around the dam. Without the dam, the fortunes of fishermen should also improve, as other fish populations, such as small and large mouth bass, are expected to increase.

“I hope the community embraces the Rivanna as it has done recently and that this project will bring more people to the river,” said Jason Halbert, who has spearheaded the breach for the Rivanna Conservation Society.

The demolition process, which will begin when a track hoe starts pulling the dam apart, is expected to take two weeks and cost $250,000, Halbert said. Roughly 50 to 95 feet of the 270-foot dam will remain standing, as long as it is stable.

Many in the surrounding community expressed mixed feelings about the breach of the dam, which sits on property owned by the Thach family. The Woolen Mills neighborhood voted in favor of the partial demolition because of the environmental benefits. But many who acquiesced to the project view this week’s action as “bittersweet,” said Victoria Dunham, co-president of the Woolen Mills Neighborhood Association.

“The dam has been the architectural heart of the neighborhood, an extremely beautiful structure and a heritage from our past,” she added.

Some neighbors are downright opposed to the breach. Roger Voisinet, whose property abuts the river, believes the removal of part of the dam may have “unintended consequences” for the surrounding environment and wildlife.

“This group has just looked at [the shad] to the exclusion of everything else,” he added.

Officials with the Rivanna Conservation Society said they understand why some residents object to the dam’s rupture, but insist that the expected improvements to the environment and the increased recreational amenities make it worthwhile.

“The benefits over time will far outweigh the concerns that may have been raised by selective homeowners,” Savage, the executive director of the organization, said.

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