In Pa., a major effort to remove old dams

Streams flow more freely, helping fish and boaters


PHILADELPHIA - Like so many beavers, earlier Pennsylvanians rarely passed up a chance to throw a dam across any river, creek or stream they happened across.

But now that zeal is running in the other direction, as the state and private partners have been removing more dams every year - restoring stream flow, improving conditions for prized sport fish and eliminating potential killers.

"Pennsylvania is leading the nation in the effort to remove dams," said Eric Eckl, spokesman for American Rivers, a private Washington-based nonprofit group that is a partner with the state Fish and Boat Commission and Department of Environmental Protection.

In June, five dams across the state were removed by contractors. The Fish and Boat Commission has about 60 dam-removal projects in progress, and thousands of candidates.

Dam removal is a priority among conservationists nationally. Federal courts ordered an operating hydroelectric dam on Maine's Kennebec River removed in 1999 to restore salmon runs, and more large dams there are coming down or being decommissioned.

In the West, some are campaigning to remove substantial dams on the Snake River in Idaho, and others dream of undamming the spectacular Hetch Hetchy valley in the Sierras, flooded a century ago to satisfy San Francisco's thirst.

In Pennsylvania, the only issue often is that the removal can't come fast enough.

A typical dam here is small and its original purpose often long forgotten. And the dam's owner usually takes the lead in wanting it out.

"The agencies are getting inundated with requests" by landowners seeking help, said Sara Nicholas, associate director of the dam program for American Rivers, which helps find grants - governmental or private - to fund removal.

While most of the dams aren't doing anyone any particular good, they can do deadly harm.

Such small dams, with water flowing over the tops, can be difficult to spot in time for boaters coming from upstream. And the falling water can create an underwater churn from which escape may be impossible.

A man and his 14-year-old son drowned in 2000 on Perkiomen Creek at the so-called B.F. Goodrich dam below Collegeville, Pa.

Nicholas said that no one keeps statistics, but that there was evidence that the dam, built in the 1940s, might have claimed 17 lives over the years. It was finally removed in June as partial settlement of a lawsuit over the drownings.

Apart from the danger, the dams cut off migratory fish. Nearly all streams that flow to the Delaware River once were home to American and hickory shad, which return from the ocean to reproduce, as well as eels and striped bass.

Even stocked fish, such as trout, avoid the stagnant pools behind the dams, where water temperatures are higher.

Denis Mora, president of the Southeastern Montgomery County chapter of Trout Unlimited, said his group has targeted Pennypack Creek, which flows for 22 miles to meet the Delaware in Holmesburg, Pa., and has at least seven dams or obstructions.

In Pennsylvania's Montgomery County, the borough of Schwenksville on the Perkiomen has three dams slated for removal.

F. Thomas Snyder, the borough manager, said the big issue was the possibility that dams increase flooding.

"The water just backs up in there," he said. "We're ambivalent about the dams, but we want flood control."

Once a dam has been identified as a candidate for removal, there is still engineering to be done and permits from a number of agencies to be granted.

Nicholas estimated the cost of removing a typical dam to be about $70,000.

The next area dam to come down likely will be on Ridley Creek in Chester, at the Taylor Arboretum.

Nicholas said the William Penn Foundation was providing the grant. The state's Growing Greener bond fund is another frequent source.

With so many dams waiting for removal, Nicholas said, American Rivers, Fish and Boat and the other agencies were removing as many dams on one stream as possible instead of one here or there.

Perkiomen and Pennypack creeks are getting special attention, she said, because they are closer to being restored to nearly natural conditions for fish for the first time in 300 years.

Some dams will remain because they still serve a purpose, and some obstacles can't be moved. In those cases, the partners engineer other solutions, such as the fish passages being built on the Schuylkill's Flat Rock dam, near Roxborough, Pa., and at a large sewer pipe that crosses the Pennypack.

Fish and Boat does run into some opposition, said program manager R. Scott Carney - mostly from residents who are used to living near a pond, not a much smaller flowing stream.

But his agency has no regulatory authority to take a dam, Carney said.

"If the dam owner is not willing to do it, it doesn't happen," he said.

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