Raleigh News & Observer April 13, 2006

Life awaits beyond Lowell

Removal of Little River Dam is intended to benefit people and fish

Mike Zlotnicki, Staff Writer

Life awaits beyond Lowell
Removal of Little River Dam is intended to benefit people and fish

Mike Zlotnicki, Staff Writer
George Howard stood on a high bank of the Little River in southern Johnston County, arms crossed like an impatient father.

A kingfisher chattered down the run as it flew to a perch.

Downstream, a trio of "fishermen" kept Howard's attention. One, Tom Dickinson, was wading the shallow stretch with a portable generator on his back while colleagues Chris Sheats and Shay Garriock walked abreast with nets scooping up fish stunned by the electrical charge. All were employees of The Catena Group, an environmental consulting company.

The reasons for this assembly -- hickory shad -- were notably absent that day. Howard's company, Restoration Systems, had managed the removal of the Lowell Dam during December and January. One of the main reasons for the dam removal was to aid the recovery of anadromous fish such as shad, herring and striped bass. Anadromous fish live in saltwater and spawn in freshwater. Some salmon on both coasts may come to mind.

With the removal of the dam, a $4.3 million project, the Little River, a tributary of the Neuse River, had 39 miles of potential spawning grounds opened for these species, though low water levels looked to be keeping the shad downstream. But shad aren't the only focus on this remote stretch of river; the impact on native (or endemic) finfish and shellfish species also is under study.

"The Catena Group did the pre-dam [removal] investigative work for the fish, mussels and snails," said wader-clad Randy Turner, a former Department of Transportation biologist who now is a senior scientist with Restoration Systems. "Catena has two contracts with us -- one for the anadromous fish (are they returning?) and one to see if the endemic fish are reshuffling, redistributing over the entire river system. In addition, they're looking at mussel distribution."

None of this would have been possible a year ago. The Lowell Dam, near Kenly, had blocked the river since 1810. Dams can be good for the fishermen because the structures cause fish to stack up during their annual spawning runs. Dams are bad for the fish, though, because the obstacles can keep them from reaching optimal spawning areas. Dams also can be dangerous for people because drownings can occur in the turbulent waters.

Still, removing a landmark such as the Lowell Dam can cause some consternation among locals who have grown accustomed to it. Even Restoration Systems' donation of 16 acres of land to Johnston County for a river park didn't appease some.

"There were some folks around who weren't for it," Gary Scott of Kenly said. "But they backed off after a while."

Scott's family owns and farms the land around the former dam site and gave permission for the removal project. Scott appreciates the work that has been done.

"We're getting the river back to where God made it," he said.

Scott, who also is an avid outdoorsman, keeps an eye on the river and potential changes caused by removal of the dam.

"If you follow the river up [stream], there was a place called the Duck Pond. But since the dam has been removed, the duck hunting is as good as it's ever been," Scott said.

Scott also said several drownings that occurred over the years were a factor in the decision to let the dam be removed. Looking ahead to a time after the park opens, the family worries about traffic and trash.

"I hope the people will understand we're still farming the land right next to it," he said. "But you can never can have enough public places for people, picnic or fish."

Tradeoffs

This project -- and others like it -- is funded by stream degradation. Much of the Lowell project, Howard said, was funded as a result of construction projects such as the Outer Loop around Raleigh and the Highway 70 bypass around Clayton.

According to the Clean Water Act, when a developer or entity such as the N.C. Department of Transportation affects a stream or wetland, it must mitigate, or compensate for, the damage by restoring another area within the watershed in which the original work was done. The entity doesn't have to do the work itself; it can purchase "credits," which are administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the N.C. Division of Water Quality and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. Companies such as Restoration Systems develop the credits by restoring wetlands and streams under tight regulatory and scientific oversight.

"Preservation and conservation are noble things," Howard said as he watched the Catena crew work the shallows. "But, in order to get ahead, we need to restore what we previously destroyed. It's good for the environment, and it's good business."

Approximately 750 tracts of land adjoin the newly reopened section of the river, and, Howard said, that means there are now 750 more pieces of land where people can fish for anadromous fish.

Howard said that his company has 25 mitigation sites in the state, including 5,000 acres of wetlands and 25 miles of streams and creeks. He estimated the value of the restoration contracts for those sites at about $50 million.

Hopping site to site

After finishing their sampling below the old dam and finding no shad present, the Catena biologists headed downstream to sample another stretch of river.

During two weeks of testing, no shad had been caught, probably because of the low water flow that has affected even traditional shad runs on rivers such as the Roanoke. The dearth of shad didn't seem to bother the Catena crew. There was plenty of aquatic life to keep them occupied.

"This is some of the strongest environment I've seen for endemic species," said Dickinson, 27, of Chapel Hill.

The Catena crew also sampled a third site on the river -- the base of the Atkinson's Mill Dam, the next dam upriver. Sheats and Dickinson worked a gill net in the current while Garriock walked gingerly and probed the water just behind the dam. The netters caught about a dozen shad -- huge 14-inchers -- but these were resident gizzard shad, not the transient hickory or American.

They will come

Not too worry, said Dr. Joe Hightower, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey stationed at N.C. State. Hightower, who conducts shad studies on other N.C. rivers, is confident the newly opened stretch of the Little River will host shad soon.

"The low water has got them off track," he said. "When I fished recreationally in the past, the American shad would stack up right at the dam."

Hightower said the removal of the dam will benefit shad most because striped bass will tend to stay in the main river.

"American shad seek out areas with coarser substrates like gravel or cobble to spawn," he said. "With every dam that's removed, the farther up the watershed they can go.

"The farther up the Little River they go, the more of that gravel and cobblestone they'll find."

And the more rock they find, the more eggs they will lay, completing their cycle of life. All because of a dam no longer there.
Staff writer Mike Zlotnicki can be reached at 829-4518 or mikez@newsobserver.com.

Correction (4/15/06)

An article Thursday in the Carolina Outdoors pages about how removal of the
Lowell Dam has affected the Little River should have said that in North
Carolina, the N.C. Ecosystem Enhancement Program administers funds for
wetland and stream restoration.