Cane river dam removal

In the fall of 2016, the final piece of concrete was removed from the Cane River Dam, in North Carolina’s Yancey County, completing a process started eight years earlier. Built in the early 20th century, it’s hydropower generating house once provided all the electricity used in the county, but decades ago it was damaged, fell into disrepair, and has deteriorated ever since.

The Cane River is home to the endangered Appalachian elktoe mussel, making it a priority area for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, charged with coordinating the recovery of federally endangered species. However, removing the dam has benefits that extend far beyond the Appalachian elktoe. Removing the dam:

Improves safety

Although breached, the dilapidated dam was a safety hazard to local residents and recreational users of the river. During high water, the dam opening would clog with stream debris and cause flooding of the access road to homes above the dam site. Potential injury to visitors from falling concrete and twisted rebar in the channel were a major concern of all the partners and landowner.

Improves habitat

A large amount of sediment and silt had collected behind the dam during its operation. With the breaching of the dam in the 1970’s, the river had cut through this historic sediment wedge. The remaining sediment was very unstable and continuing to erode, resulting in impacts to downstream habitat. The river was also disconnected from its floodplain, deeply incised, and lacked deep-rooted native vegetation. The created a recipe for unsustainable stream habitat that was unsuitable for the aquatic species in the river.

The design of the river restoration was intended to create to mimic the natural configuration of the Cane River before the dam was constructed. Prior to removing the dam, a significant amount of the nonnative invasive plant, Japanese knotweed, was removed from the sediment wedge and deeply buried within the project area. The sediment behind the dam was partially excavated and spread over an adjacent area and stabilized with vegetation. A stable natural gravel, cobble, and boulder stream channel resulted, which is more suitable for native fish and the Appalachian elktoe mussel, as well as other aquatic animals. Hellbender shelter rocks were installed to create nesting habitat for this rare aquatic salamander.

Opens up habitat

The ruined dam impeded the movement of stream animals, especially during higher river flows. The deconstruction of the entire dam structure and removal of the associated debris has provided unimpeded movement up and downstream for all aquatic species that live in the Cane River.

Learn more from those involved in this project in their own voice.

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