Shad seining on the Brandywine, Courtesy of Jim Shanahan, Brandywine River Restoration Trust.
The Delaware River is the longest undammed river east of the Mississippi, flowing freely for 330 miles through a Basin spanning four states. While many of us may not have direct experience or contact with the mighty Delaware itself, we most likely have interacted with its tributaries throughout our communities by fishing, paddling, or hiking a trail nearby. And so these creeks, rivers, and streams play a key role in the ecosystem and in our lives.
A key factor in the health of these tributaries and the species which inhabit them is the extent to which they are dammed. Beginning with the industrial revolution, dams along these creeks and rivers have powered mills that were used to produce grain, paper and other goods. These dams are not providing flood control or other benefits. Today, obsolete and abandoned dams are creating problems by impeding movement for various species, imposing stresses on habitats and limiting the ways we can experience our waterways. The DRBC does not have direct jurisdiction over dam removals but has served as a consultant to natural resource trustee agencies in damage assessments and compensation projects.
To learn more about dam removal in the Basin and its benefits, we chatted with folks currently advancing projects across the Delaware River Basin: Jim Shanahan, Executive Director, Brandywine River Restoration Trust (BRRT) in Delaware, Alan Hunt, Director of Policy & Grants, Musconetcong Watershed Association (MWA) in New Jersey and facilitator of the Musconetcong River Restoration Partnership, and Kristie Fach, Director of Ecological Restoration for Wildlands Conservancy in Pennsylvania.
What is the origin story of your organization?
Jim: We began as a small NGO solely made up of volunteers interested in dam removal to improve outcomes for shad and other anadromous fish. To form what is now BRRT, we partnered with Brandywine Conservancy, the Delaware Water Resources Center, the Hagley Museum and Library which owns four of the 11 dams on the Brandywine. We received grant funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the state of Delaware to support our work. In 2022 we received a grant from the Longwood Foundation that allowed for my full-time position as Executive Director and supports our part-time community engagement coordinator. We changed our name from Brandywine Shad in 2020 to BRRT in 2022 to better reflect a broader mission to restore and preserve the Brandywine as well as engage with underserved communities, who live nearby.
Alan: We started out in 1991 because we were concerned about the rate of development in northwestern New Jersey and were excited by the prospect of attaining the “Wild & Scenic River” designation for the Musconetcong. MWA formed in 1992, and after many hard years of work, the Musconetcong received the Wild & Scenic designation in 2006. As soon as we secured funding, we began focusing on dam removals. Our work got started in the Hackettstown area with the removal of the Gruendyke Dam in 2007. We really saw a need to tackle the problem of abandoned mill dams along the river and knew there was also a significant benefit of open fish passages at the same time. The Riegelsville Dam that spanned the mouth of the Musconetcong was really a blockage for shad and other fish and we were able to remove that in 2011. To date, we have facilitated 5 dam removals and plans are underway to remove five more.
Kristie: This is a great opportunity to share our origin story because we are celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the Wildlands Conservancy! But we started as a small nonprofit organization focused on land protection and our work has expanded to include conservation, restoration and education efforts throughout the Lehigh Valley and Lehigh River watershed, which is a tributary of the Delaware River. Today, we serve as the restoration and outreach provider for Northampton County, providing environmental and ecological education for county residents. We work to preserve and enhance the natural resources of our beloved Lehigh Valley and last year we planted 10,000 native trees and shrubs to serve as riparian buffers in county parks. The origin story of dam removal on Bushkill Creek, specifically, started in 2005 with an environmental incident at the PPL Martins Creek Steam Electric Station that released fly ash into the Delaware and nearby waterways. Dam removals on the Bushkill Creek and in New Jersey were selected to restore the natural resources damaged in this incident.
Finesville Dam removal on the Musconetcong River, Courtesy of Alan Hunt, Musconetcong Watershed Association.
What is the process and timeline for dam removal?
Alan: The process is extensive and expensive. On average, it can cost $1.5-2.0 million per dam removal. There are many abandoned mill dams from the early industrial revolution along the river, so working through ownership can be a challenge as it can take quite a while to obtain landowner permission. In addition, there are abundant safety considerations for assessing the structure, impacts on regional infrastructure, nearby neighbors, etc. and then financially the up-front costs of permitting and design are substantial. The actual demolition and construction happen the fastest, but our experience shows a 9-13 year timeline from start to finish for each dam removal, including a required three–year post-removal erosion and site stability monitoring period.
Jim: Everything Alan said! Also, there are usually so many entities involved in this process. You’ve got the landowner, the local municipalities, sometimes the Army Corps of Engineers is involved, sometimes these waterways flow through multiple states so we’re dealing with two or more departments of environmental protection and conservation, and on and on. For example, while we are based in Delaware, most of the Brandywine watershed is in Pennsylvania. We’ll be looking at tackling a number of those dams alongside the Brandywine Conservancy and Brandywine Red Clay Alliance.
Kristie: The process can really vary depending on how complicated the dam removal itself will be, and also planning for infrastructure impacts and protecting the area around the dam. But the first step is always securing grant funding, which in my experience has taken up to 18 months. Pennsylvania has a pretty smooth process and brings multiple agencies together to coordinate. Overall, I’d say it takes 3-4 years, start to finish.
What are the considerations and due diligence needed when considering dam removal?
Alan: I think a key question in this process is, “What is the point we are restoring to?” For each potential project, you have to assess the benefit and the consequences. For example, at Finesville Dam (removed in 2011), the surrounding community did not want to see the dam removed and created a Historic District to prevent that, but it became a safety hazard and ultimately the project earned community support. At Hughesville Dam (removed in 2016), there were concerns about the loss of soundscape, which in the end was actually enhanced. Beatty’s Mill Dam in Hackettstown is coming down later this year and will fix an eroding stream bank, which will improve water quality in a popular trout fishing spot. But not all solutions are the same. For example, the Saxton Falls Dam for the Morris Canal may not be worth doing a fish passage project because it is 35 miles up from the Delaware River and not much migratory fish spawning will occur up that far. Also, the dam is over 200 years old, and it now supports a human-made wetland complex full of waterfowl, turtles, and other wildlife. Understanding your restoration goal is key.
There are also concerns in the angling community that taking out dams will allow invasive species like catfish or pike to encroach on their targeted catch. While we think the benefits to migratory fish habitat outweigh those concerns, every dam removal has unique considerations. Through a five-year post-removal assessment at the Hughesville Dam, we saw that populations of warmwater fish didn’t come up to the restored river segments. Smaller tributaries like the Musconetcong are shallower, faster moving, and colder than the Delaware River and thus unappealing to large, warmwater predator fish.
Kristie: We have to really take all elements of permitting, design and construction into consideration. We have found that the construction phase can be tricky, particularly when it comes to old utility lines or maybe gas and sewer lines that need to be relocated. Sometimes bridges need to be stabilized. You can plan for the dam removal itself, but there is a lot of related construction work that has to happen that you really have to factor in. Sometimes the actual dam removal is the easiest and least expensive part of the whole process.
Jim: And once the dam is down, the work is not done. On the biological side, you have to monitor to determine the impacts of the dam removal. You have to make sure the fish are behaving in the way you anticipated, that the water is flowing in ways that have in fact decreased pressure on infrastructure, etc. It is not a “demo and done” situation.
What are the benefits of dam removal?
Jim: When you take down the right dam in the right location, the benefits are numerous. For the fish, the benefits come quickly. Almost immediately after the removal of Dam #1 in 2019, juvenile shad were caught in a seine net for a 2020 survey conducted by the University of Delaware SeaGrant, showing that the fish will spawn and when the dams in their way come down. Other benefits include flood reduction and improved water quality.
Alan: We see the same thing. The year after the Hughesville Dam was removed, NJDEP caught a shad upstream. The next migratory fish season, the fish came back. We can also do water analysis and find DNA evidence of the shad and other species which tells us they are back even if we can’t catch a sample. Also, with dam removal, boat portages are also removed, which opened up the lower Musconetcong to recreational boating.
Kristie: The health of the stream is much improved by removing the dam. The dams can create slow water, higher temperatures, low oxygen, and poor nutrient conditions. Once the dam is removed, literally you can see fish return the next day; it’s amazing how the fish will return as the natural stream flow is restored.. Dams that are obsolete and no longer serving a purpose are an impediment to the ecosystem.
Removal of Dam No. 1 on Bushkill Creek, Courtesy of Kristie Fach, Wildlands Conservancy.
How does your organization engage with the community?
Jim: We think the community engagement and education piece is just as important as the dam removal itself. Our long-term goal is to get people engaged with the river through water contact, such as fishing, swimming, boating, etc. The quality of the water over the last 30 years has improved a great deal and that’s because people value and invest in it.
We host fishing lessons at Brandywine ShadFest and do a free fishing gear giveaway, which we are now planning as a week-long camp with the Boys and Girls Club in Wilmington at Brandywine Park.
We are starting up a community-based water quality monitoring program to focus on the lower Brandywine where we are working with the University of Delaware to correlate the data of stream flow to rain amounts and E.coli and other strains to classify conditions for swimming advisories. We’re going to engage kids from Wilmington to help do water testing and get involved with their local water quality and hire four kids to help.
Kristie: Wildlands Conservancy is a non-profit land trust. We do a lot of environmental education and land protection, but stream restoration and dam removal is certainly a part of that equation. We provide nature-based educational opportunities for all ages from hosting summer camps for school-aged children to running the Lehigh River Sojourn.
Alan: We’re big on education and have resources for teachers and schools at every level from elementary school through college. For example, we run the MWA Watershed Education Program, which teaches students about freshwater ecology, ground and surface water and we have a virtual classroom curriculum that can be accessed any time. We also help organize and host field trips and run a summer day camp, Camp Musky. Also, this year, we started the Watershed Allies Training program as part of our new Center of Excellence to help residents better understand how they can be more involved in protecting the watershed.
We also work to educate the community on native plant species that can contribute to their local ecological systems and organize river cleanups. There’s no shortage of ways to connect with us and learn more!
How can people help support this work?
Alan: Funding is important. Family foundations, corporations, and governmental entities can help fund this critical ecological work. The public can talk to their elected officials and ask for money for big ecological restoration projects. Some states address this in different ways. For example, New York state pays for environmental restoration projects via the state budget in a new Environmental Protection Fund. New Jersey doesn’t have a similar fund for environmental restoration projects, so while the federal government is charging ahead on fish passage projects, via funding and re-licensing requirements on active dams, we often have to assemble funding from 5-8 sources to remove each abandoned dam. It’s not all construction money either. With an emphasis on “shovel ready” projects with permits in hand, I worry about the pipelining of projects. Just engineering, design, planning, and permitting can be about 50% of project cost on small dams, at least $150,000 per project in New Jersey. When projects have moved faster, a single funder has provided support for both planning and construction, oftentimes this was with a federal partner or an environmental damage payment from a polluter. Asking elected leaders, private foundations, and corporate donors to grow the funding for environmental restoration projects is critical to restoring free flowing fish habitat in the Delaware River Basin.
Kristie: I agree with Alan! Also, spreading awareness of this work is a win-win, not only for the ecosystem benefits we talked about, but also for landowners and the public about the hazards that old dams can pose. We are just one of several organizations doing this work throughout the Delaware River Basin, so we hope more organizations will become involved!
Chad: The dam removal process certainly takes a good deal of time, money, and education. The DRBC’s decades-long work to improve oxygen levels in the Delaware River removed a major pollution barrier and more migratory fish are coming back to Our Shared Waters; it is wonderful to see physical barriers coming down as well, allowing fish like American shad and American eel to continue their recovery. To learn more about dam removal opportunities, our partners at the Nature Conservancy created a Restoration Road Map for the Delaware River Basin.
Thanks to Jim, Alan, Kristie, their organizations, and so many others who work to maximize the benefits for Our Shared Waters.
Blog written by Chad Pindar, Manager, DRBC Water Resource Planning Section.