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Water topples over a 25ft tall dam
Information icon Hoosier Dam stood 25 feet tall and 235 feet across the Rocky River in Chatham County. It blocked the endangered Cape Fear shiner from reaching habitat upstream from 1922 until October 2018. Photo by Emily Wells, USFWS.

North Carolina dam removal helps Rocky River and the endangered fish that lives there

The Cape Fear shiner, a federally protected North American minnow found only in central North Carolina, battles to survive with only one stronghold remaining in the lower reaches of the Rocky and Deep Rivers of North Carolina’s Upper Cape Fear River Basin.

Many issues have piled up against this little fish, but a massive dam of reinforced concrete, averaging 25 feet tall and 235 feet across stood out, until recently, as a monumental obstacle to the species’ recovery. Hoosier Dam, built in 1922 as part of a hydroelectric operation on the Rocky River, was one of several dams in the Cape Fear shiner’s habitat that had an impact on the shiner population. It created an impoundment known as Reeves Lake with water too deep and stagnant for fish like the Cape Fear shiner and other species, such as freshwater mussels, to thrive. These small, sensitive creatures need free flowing rocky streams to shelter from predators, to find food, and to reproduce.

A reservoir created by a dam
Reeves Lake before dewatering in 2017. Photo by Emily Wells, USFWS.

In 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the dire situation of the Cape Fear shiner by listing it as endangered and designating its known locations — two sections of the Rocky River and a section of the Deep River — as Critical Habitat. The Service also developed a recovery plan in which noted that “dam construction in the Cape Fear River system has probably had the most serious impact on the species by inundating the species’ rocky habitat and altering stream flows.”

Today, there is renewed hope and progress. Local businesses, non-profit organizations and concerned citizens have been educating, advocating, and restoring habitats around the Rocky River for decades. Groups like the Chatham Conservation Partnership, the Rocky River Heritage Foundation, the Cape Fear River Partnership, Unique Places LLC., and others understand that conserving natural areas helps drinking water, the economy, and quality of life. They consolidated support from local, state, federal and private organizations to put in place a shared vision for the Rocky River.

Over three river miles of the Rocky River started to open up when Hoosier Dam was removed in October 2018, in a restoration project led by Unique Places LLC. The project took a long time to materialize. For years, Unique Places and the Cape Fear River Partnership have been implementing the Cape Fear Basin Comprehensive Trail Plan seeking to improve fish passage and recreation opportunities, by reconnecting the Rocky River to other rivers and tributaries, in the Cape Fear Basin.

Since 2013, the Service, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been providing technical assistance to Unique Places, LLC and their contractor Wildlands Engineering. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation provided a grant to Unique Places to complete the environmental, engineering, and construction related components of dam removal. The Service’s Aquatic Habitat Restoration Team, provided significant leverage by partnering with the dam owners to complete the removal and instream restoration at no additional cost to the project.

Dewatering of Reeves Lake began during the summer of 2017. The summer months were chosen for drawdown to ensure that spring reproduction of rare mussels and the Cape Fear Shiner would not be disturbed. Service and NCWRC biologists collected sensitive mussel species and relocated them upstream of the impounded reach, and into a nearby tributary. The gates opened in the powerhouse and Reeves Lake dewatered over the following months.

A reservoir with a substantial amount of water removed
View of Reeves Lake after initial dewatering in 2017. Photo by Emily Wells, USFWS.

Demolition started in October, 2018. Construction equipment operators from the Service’s Aquatic Habitat Restoration Team worked for weeks chiseling away at the dam and associated features with amazing attention to detail, removing portions of the dam that been in place for almost 100 years. Contractors are currently planting seeds and grass along the river banks to minimize erosion and sedimentation into the Rocky River.

A large, bright orange backhoe moving boulders in the river
Heavy machinery does the hard work of removing hammering away at the dam. Photo by Emily Wells, USFWS.

The river already has begun, and will continue, to regain its natural identity as a shallow stream flowing over boulders and bedrock outcrops, through pools and natural riffles over deposits of large woody debris.The removed stone will be used to create riffles and runs which are desirable features to increase instream habitat for mussels and fish. The team will revisit the site in the summer of 2019 to remove another small remnant rock dam almost a mile upstream and ensure there is nothing left but strategically placed rock resembling the natural stream system.

The Rocky River is not a completely restored system, since three more dams upstream on the Rocky River continue to impede flow, but the restored stretch indicates a better future for the Cape Fear shiner.

Contact

Lilibeth Serrano, Public Affairs Specialist
lilibeth_serrano@fws.gov, (252) 933-2255

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 fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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