Raleigh Ecological Services Field Office
Conserving the Nature of America
Rocks protruding from the water align to mimic nature

View of the rock arch rapids on the Cape Fear River, North Carolina. Photo by Josh Raabe

Let the River Run

Water in motion, an unstoppable force for change and inspiration
May 30, 2013 

A river restoration project that started as a way to help migrating fish like the federally listed shortnose sturgeon and Atlantic sturgeon and game fish like shad and striped bass has evolved into a powerful tool for economic development and community revitalization on the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, 40 miles northwest of Wilmington.

The Cape Fear River Basin is the largest in the state covering 9,322 square miles and 6,049 linear stream miles. It is one of just four basins located entirely within the North Carolina state boundaries. It flows southeast from the north central Piedmont region of the state, near Greensboro, to the Atlantic Ocean near Wilmington.

And it was on the Cape Fear River, in southern Bladen County, that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently built a $13 million rock-arch rapid across the face of Lock and Dam No 1 with federal stimulus funds.  Construction started in June 2011 and completed in November 2012. This structure, a collection of strategically placed rocks and boulders, retained the original structure and purpose of the dam while creating a way for fish to get over the dam, including pools where fish can swim and rest at their own pace while moving upstream to spawn. This innovative approach to fish passage is an improvement over fish ladders and other engineered solutions because it looks (to a fish) like a natural shoal on the river.

Redesigning the dam to emulate nature is redefining the role of the Cape Fear River as a working river.  The lock and dams on the Cape Fear River were built between 1915 and 1935 to promote commercial navigation. Today, the river is no longer a route for commercial traffic, but cities and businesses benefit from the water supply pools created by the lock and dam systems. 

Captain Doug Springer, former executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, remembers one of his first initiatives in 2006-2007 was to start an awareness campaign for river restoration and to find consensus on it. “We wanted to open fish passage, but taking down the dam wasn’t going to happen and people were going to tug forever.  We were under drought conditions, so the water intakes were needed.  Taking the dams out was not a conceivable option.”

Fishing at the Cape Fear River

Fishing at the Cape Fear River. Photo by Josh Raabe

William Kopp, Chairman of the Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority, explains that Brunswick, Hanover and Pender counties get raw drinking water behind Lock and Dam No.1. “Taking down the dams would have been extremely detrimental.  The rock-arch rapid is a win-win for both the environment and maintaining the water supply for half a million people,” said Kopp.

Building rock-arch rapids supports the aging dams, maintains water supply and allows migratory fish to swim over the dams.  The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries conducted a tagging study while the rock-arch rapids were under construction and found three total fish, one American shad and two striped bass swam over the dam at Lock and Dam no. 1 on their own.  For the next two years, North Carolina State University will be evaluating fish passage over Lock and Dam No. 1 with a primary focus on anadromous fish migrations in the spring.  Additional efforts are underway to explore the possibility of a fall migration for sturgeon.

“For us at the Fish and Wildlife Service, the benefits of the rock-arch rapids to fish are unbeatable.  Two more rock-arch rapids are desirable at Lock and Dams No. 2 and No. 3 to reestablish fish stock in the Cape Fear River basin at Elizabethtown and Fayetteville respectively.  Conservation partners are seeking to secure funding from state, federal and private sources,” said Mike Wicker, Coastal Program Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 “The Service’s Coastal Program restores migratory fish stocks to historical levels by allowing fish to reach their former spawning areas. The Coastal Program also works to preserve and enhance the coastal environment that helps define North Carolina. These actions benefit both nature and the state’s economy through enhanced outdoor recreation and tourism,” Wicker said.

Captain Jot Owens, an outfitter specializing in fishing trips, explains that fishermen are excited about the arch rapids because opening the Cape Fear River to striped bass migration will turn the river into a year-round fishing destination.  “Striped bass is a winter fishery, so it will fill the tourism industry gap from January through March for local businesses like hotels and tackle shops,” Owens said.

Captain Charles Robbins with Cape Fear River Adventures offers guided canoe and kayak trips and has seen increased business since the word got out about the rapids.

Springer, who now runs a business called Wilmington Water Tours, said, “the restoration is an inspiration for us and the people that come here.” He takes people up the river through the lock and dams with a Catamaran.  “The business is growing even in tough economic times,” he explained.  “When I show the river and the rapids to visitors, they go back home ready to move here,” added Springer.

Indeed, people are moving to the area.  According to the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management, growth rates in Brunswick and New Hanover counties are among the highest in the state.

Expanded environmental, recreational and educational opportunities will benefit most directly the town of East Arcadia, near Lock and Dam No. 1 in Bladen County.  Every spring, this community celebrates its heritage at the Cape Fear River Shad Festival. Most likely, as people enjoy the fried shad, steamed roe and hush puppies each year, they will look over the river and count how many of the American shad return to the Cape Fear River making their way through the rapids.

By:  Lilibeth Serrano, Public Affairs Specialist, Southeast Region. Edited by Mike Wicker, Pete Benjamin and Wilson Laney.
Acknowledgement: Kemp Burdette, executive director for the Cape Fear River Watch, collaborated on the story.

Last Updated: June 25, 2012