By Lee Roberts
JACKSON COUNTY, Tenn. (Aug. 1, 2017) – The removal of Roaring River Dam is underway, a multi-organizational stream restoration effort that will reconnect aquatic species and make recreation safer near the low head dam that is at risk of failing and no longer needed as a fish barrier.
The dam is located at river mile 4.9 on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District leased property associated with Cordell Hull Lake. The district built the 220-foot long dam in 1972, then rebuilt and reinforced it in 1976 after heavy flooding damaged the structure in November 1973. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency originally wanted the dam to keep reservoir species from migrating upstream into areas inhabited by stream fish. Fish surveys indicate the barrier was somewhat ineffective and no longer needed.
The Nashville District conducted an environmental assessment from 2016-2017 pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act and other regulatory guidance, determining the dam’s removal posed no significant impact to the Roaring River ecosystem.
“The dam is on Corps property and TWRA has a real estate out grant, including the fish barrier dam area,” said Travis Wiley, biologist with the Nashville District Project and Planning Branch. “They submitted a request to remove the dam and the Corps evaluated it under NEPA to determine the environmental effects of removing the dam.”
The Corps’ assessment paved the way for TWRA to remove the dam in partnership with the Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and the Southern Aquatic Resources Partnership.
Work crews notched the dam July 31 to lower the water impounded upstream of the dam, and then began removing the structure Aug. 1. The project is expected to be complete Aug. 4. The crew is peeling back the concrete cap and hauling it off along with the gabion baskets with rocks underneath the structure. Some of the material will be reused to build up eroded areas near the site.
Mark Thurman, TWRA Region III Fisheries Program manager in Crossville, Tenn., said at the time the dam was built, officials were concerned that the quality of fishing on Roaring River and its tributaries would be affected by the bigger fish making their way upriver from newly impounded Cordell Hull Lake.
“We’ve seen many of the species that it was designed to limit move upstream of the dam,” Thurman said. “So as a barrier it’s been marginally effective.”
Thurman said the fact that fish management philosophies have changed over the past four decades, along with the fact the dam is failing and creating a safety hazard, led to the assessment and decision to remove the dam. He said the various partners involved with the project addressed permitting and funding requirements.
Once this dam is removed TWRA expects greater connectivity from the Cumberland River up into the upper reaches of the Roaring River, a move that will open up the river to species such as white bass, sauger, smallmouth bass and redhorse.
“We’ll see fish species be able to move past here up into some spawning areas we haven’t seen used in a good while,” Thurman said. “We’re hoping that we see some benefits for species like the eastern hellbender,” a giant salamander listed as a species of greatest conservation need by the state of Tennessee.
Roaring River Dam posed a hazard to public safety because of headcut erosion on the structure near the left descending bank. Following compliance verification April 13, 2017, the Nashville District Real Estate Division granted approval for TWRA to remove the fish barrier dam structure.
Rob Bullard, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers Program director with the Nature Conservancy, estimates there are 2,000 of these dams in the state that have outlived their intended purpose and fallen into disrepair. Their removal results in safer rivers for recreation and healthier habitats for wildlife, he said.