Raleigh Ecological Services Field Office
Conserving the Nature of America

Historic Lassiter Mill Removal and Uwharrie River Reconnection

August 30, 2013

Peter Raabe American Rivers, 919/ 682-3500, praabe@americanrivers.org
Jacob Leech, Piedmont Conservation Council, Inc. 919-300-1628
Laura Fogo, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 910/695-3323, ext. 4 laura_fogo@fws.gov

Additional Resources:

Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KomRp0FMpEM

Photos by American Rivers on Flickr

Photos of the NC demollition team at work

As metal smashes rock and concrete, two track hoe excavators, one armed with a pneumatic jackhammer, chisel away to remove Lassiter Mill Dam in the Uwharrie River.  Loud mechanical noises are unusual in this part of Randolph County, nestled in the forests and pastures of the ancient Uwharrie Mountains.  But conservation-minded landowners accept these significant measures needed to restore the natural flow of water through their land.  Back in 1805, folks concerned about dam construction along the Uwharrie River said that due to the construction of the dam they were “deprived of the benefits that providence by nature has bestowed upon us!” Our ancestors were fighting for the right to keep the American shad fishery resources.  This end of August the Uwharrie River is being restored back to the free flowing conditions these people petitioned for over 200 years ago.  After all these years, this project is a great way to honor the landowner’s historic connection to the Uwharrie River valley.   
It takes a partnership to accomplish a river restoration.  American Rivers, Piedmont Conservation Council, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), US Fish and Wildlife Service and most of all, the landowners teamed up to restore aquatic life passage on the Uwharrie River by removing Lassiter Mill Dam located in Randolph County, NC.  Other partners participating in research are the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, NC Natural Heritage Program, Duke Energy-Progress, Appalachian State University, Duke University, University of Virginia, and volunteers. 
The Lassiter Mill dam, 12 feet high and 200 feet long, historically blocked migrating American shad from reaching spawning habitat in the upper Uwharrie River and tributaries.  It also blocked and separated local fish populations.   The river habitat was affected too.  The dam created a wall that basically turned the free-flowing river environment into a stagnant pond environment -- too slow, too deep, and too silty for the large diversity of mussels and fish that need the natural shallow, fast flowing water to survive.

The Uwharrie River and its tributaries are filled with rare aquatic wonders unique to the Piedmont region of central North Carolina. The river is recognized as a Significant Natural Heritage Area of “Very High” significance by the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program for its biological diversity containing habitat for sixteen aquatic species of fish, mussels and salamanders that are considered rare, threatened or endangered.   

 Removing Lassiter Mill Dam opened up an additional 14.6 miles of potential spawning habitat for fish on the main stem of the river and an overall total of 189 river miles, including tributary streams to the river.  The primary indicators of project success in the future, once passage is provided at downstream dams,  will be the passage of American shad and eel, increases in species richness and/or abundance, and habitat improvements up and downstream.  Other benefits include a safe passage way for watercraft and enhanced recreational fishing. 

Piedmont Conservation Council Jacob Leech explained, "These removals reflect the work of a lot of people, from private landowners to federal agencies, coming together to improve the health of the river."  Initial estimated costs of the project were much greater than the actual cost, mainly because the fact the USFWS is doing the actual demolition with their own staff and rented equipment.  This is a tremendous benefit and cost savings for the project.  American Rivers awarded a grant to the Piedmont Conservation Council to manage, design and permit the removal.  The USFWS’ Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, and the NOAA Community-based Restoration Program, provided funding.  The USFWS’ Fish Passage Program provided funding for manpower and heavy equipment for deconstruction.  Leech notes, “This is a great example of a strong, effective partnership between nonprofits and government agencies. We hope to see many more obsolete dams removed this way throughout the southeast region.”  USFWS biologist Laura Fogo said, “We could not have made this project possible without the voluntary efforts of the private landowner.  They enabled partners to motivate and leverage resources for this river restoration.”   

The shad are coming!  In the next few years, Duke Energy-Progress plans to trap and transport over 20,000 American shad and release the fish into the Pee Dee River above Lake Tillery, where the Uwharrie River joins. The work will be done as part of an agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for relicensing of several hydropower dams along the Yadkin-Pee Dee River. This influx of shad will boost the stock and accelerate species recruitment within the headwaters of the Uwharrie River. 

Service biologist Fogo views this project as part of a landscape level, watershed restoration initiative within the Greater Uwharrie Conservation Partnership focal area.  Lassiter Mill Dam is the third dam removed from the Pee Dee watershed.   Two other dams were removed by the same group located on the Little River and Densons Creek in Montgomery County last year.  An additional two more, Smitherman’s Mill Dam and Troy Reservoir No. 2 within the Little River watershed, are the remaining scheduled for removal by 2014-15.  Collectively, all five projects will reconnect aquatic life passage on approximately 54 miles of river, 10 miles of creek, and 318 miles of perennial tributaries. 

Last Updated: November 1, 2012