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water topels over a foot drop after a dam was removed on the Sucarnoochee River.
Information icon Native fishes and mussels can move upstream after removal of Livingston Dam in Alabama. Photo by Eric Spadgenske, USFWS.

Livingston Dam: A restoration story

Livingston, Alabama — The Sucarnoochee River is a sleepy coastal plain river that snakes its way through the Black Belt (the band of fertile soil crossing central Alabama and northeast Mississippi), near the University of West Alabama. The ‘nooch has only been studied by a handful of scientists and is not well known as a major tourist destination.

Home to unique animals with comparably unique names, like bankclimber, fawnsfoot, Alabama orb, bluehead chub, and naked sand darter, this river contributes to the state of Alabama’s depth of aquatic biodiversity. On any given weekend, members of the local canoe club, college students, and local fishermen can be found enjoying the tranquility that comes from being connected to the water.

In the late 1970s, the city of Livingston built a low-head dam to provide a reliable source of drinking water for their growing community. The dam was constructed of approximately 50 interlocking sections of steel sheet pile spanning the entire 75 foot width of the river to create an impoundment from which water was drawn upslope to a treatment facility. Less than 15 years later it was determined that treatment of the river water was no longer economical. The dam became obsolete; abandoned for cleaner, deep wells.

The dam was no friend to aquatic wildlife, however. It blocked fish passage, inundated critical habitat for federally protected mussels, and compromised water quality for a whole suite of aquatic species. Partners from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources collected 15 mussel species downstream of the dam compared to only three species in the upstream (altered) section. The dam also created dangerous undercurrents and a physical barrier for recreationists navigating the river in small boats or inner tubes — a favorite of students from the nearby university. Justification for removal was clear — it was time to pull a partnership together.

Because dam removals are planning-intensive and involve partnering with many specialties, they require a champion to bring all of the pieces together. “In Alabama, we are fortunate to have a tremendous coalition of partners within the Alabama Rivers and Streams Network (ARSN) that I was able to call on during every phase of this project,” said Eric Spadgenske, state coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. Actual demolition is often often the most celebrated moment of any dam removal project, but that big moment is only a small part of the effort and coordination required to return a river to its free-flowing state. The logistics of dam removal are also no small feat and anticipating project needs before they arise is essential to a successful end result in the unique and often challenging landscape of river restoration.

Because of the dam’s unique construction and the nature of working in flowing water, a skilled, experienced team was necessary for a safe, successful removal. Fortunately, the Service’s Fisheries and Aquatic Conservation Program’s Aquatic Habitat Restoration Team stepped up to the challenge. “Providing fish passage and reducing fragmented habitat of imperiled species are two of our primary goals,” said Tripp Boltin, the Service’s Fisheries and Aquatic Habitat Restoration Team’s regional coordinator. “Working with the Partners Program, we were able to achieve both of these goals. Re-opening over 600 miles of mainstem and tributary streams to fish passage for aquatic species and reducing safety hazards at the former dam site is a win for the species and people who call the ‘nooch home.”

As owner of the dam, the city of Livingston was fully supportive of the project, providing valuable support and services including removal of a large steel tower that was impeding site access and coordinating police escorts and traffic management for several over-sized deliveries. “The dam had outlived its usefulness and created a liability for the city — we were grateful to partner with the Fish and Wildlife Service to get it removed. People can now enjoy the river without risk of injury or loss of property,” said Bird Dial, Livingston’s city administrator.

“Our ARSN community stepped up on nearly every aspect of planning and implementation including engineering design, fish and mussel surveys, and clearance from the State Historic Preservation Office,” said Spadgenske. “Working with the Service’s Regional Fisheries and Aquatic Habitat Restoration Team has been a huge benefit, not only allowing for significant cost savings, but the ability to lean confidently on decades of experience and expertise.”

From its headwaters in Mississippi to its confluence with the Tombigbee River, the Sucarnoochee River now flows unimpeded for its entire length – free again.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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