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Water cascades over the edge of a dam strewn with logs and debris
Information icon The Milburnie Dam, just east of Raleigh, has been demolished. The Neuse River now flows, unimpeded, about 150 miles to the Pamlico Sound. It clears the way for migratory fish to spawn upstream. Photo by Mike Wicker, USFWS.

To the sea

North Carolina dam’s removal clears way for fish

Who knows how long the great river ran unimpeded from the pine forests and hardwoods to the sea? Scientists can only estimate.

But they can tell you when that great river resumed its restless push to the Atlantic Ocean: Nov. 22, 2017.

On that day, the Milburnie Dam crumbled. It was the last structure impeding the Neuse River’s flow across eastern North Carolina to the mouth of the Pamlico Sound, 150 miles to the east. For more than two centuries the 625-foot structure, just east of Raleigh, N.C., had blocked the river’s natural course.

Its demolition – an effort involving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and an array of other state and federal agencies – capped more than a decade of planning and governmental cooperation.

Beginning next spring, say biologists, striped bass, Atlantic shad and sturgeon should head upriver from the Pamlico Sound to spawn. They’ll nest in areas that have been cut off since the mid-1700s, when long-ago Americans first put a dam on the site.

“We should get a much better abundance of fish,” said Mike Wicker, a biologist who’s the North Carolina coastal program coordinator for the Service. “It should be really pretty, too.”

Wicker was a co-chair of a committee that more than a decade ago compiled an inventory of North Carolina dams that were candidates for removal. Atop the list: the Milburnie structure. It had powered a paper mill, then was converted to hydropower use. It had not operated for the last 10 years.

A restored stream and floodplain.
The Milburnie Dam was the latest of six structures removed from North Carolina waterways in less than two decades. Map by USFWS.

It was a hazard, too. The dam, and a sandy beach adjacent to it, was a tourist spot where at least 15 people had drowned over the years. The site also was notorious for a double-homicide 45 years earlier.

Working with other agencies, the Service oversaw the dam’s demolition. Restoration Systems LLC, a Raleigh-based company whose services include dam removals, went at the concrete structure with backhoe and bulldozer. It freed the river in a week.

“It just kind of crumbled,” said Tiffani Bylow, who managed the project.

Restoration Systems spent $1.2 million dismantling the dam, and will spend more on landscaping and monitoring the Neuse. It will recoup its money through mitigation banking – selling credits to governments or developers whose proposed developments elsewhere may harm streambeds or wetlands. In the case of the Milburnie Dam, the N.C. Department of Transportation may be paying Restoration Systems. It has plans to build a highway south of the river, and will destroy streams and other habitat in the process.

The Milburnie Dam joins a growing list of structures that no longer exist. Nearly 1,400 dams have been removed since the 1990s, according to American Rivers, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring the nation’s waterways.

A restored stream and floodplain.
The dam’s removal revealed river banks not seen for 200 years. Photo by USFWS.

“From an ecological standpoint, this was a fantastic removal,” said Erin McCombs, an associate conservation director who works in American Rivers’ Asheville, N.C., office. “We’d been supporting this project for a long time.”

Fish have been waiting even longer to return to their traditional spawning grounds. Come spring, they’ll head up the great river, and do what nature intended.


Mark Davis, Public Affairs Specialist, (404) 679-7291


On December 20th this story was updated to include information about how the dam removal was funded.

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