Dam Removal Way Down Yonder

Mountain laurel: a common, but beautiful wildflower that decorates the upper reaches of the Chattahoochee. Photo by Henry Hershey.

The famous Chattahoochee River starts as a spring-fed mountain stream in the southern Appalachians. After it fills Lake Lanier with drinking water for Atlanta, it travels south through the Piedmont, forming the state line between Georgia and Alabama. As it makes its way over rocky shoals towards the coastal plain and the Gulf of Mexico, it provides habitat for highly valued sport fishes, and white water for a booming paddle sports industry.

From the mountains to the ocean, the Chattahoochee River is impounded by several dams of various sizes and uses. Some were built to provide drinking water and electricity for Atlanta, some were built to support the textile mill industry. Since the construction of these dams in the early 1900s, energy production has slowed down, and the industry has all but fallen away, rendering the dams obsolete.

This past winter, Georgia Power surrendered its FERC licenses for two of their low-head dams on the middle Chattahoochee: Riverview, and Langdale Dams. For fishy folk, this would normally be a cause for celebration, because the effects of dam removal have been shown to benefit a wide range of species. But, for the communities that have used this river for decades, it is a point of serious contention.

Langdale Dam (photo from Georgia Power)

I recently had the chance to speak with my friend Henry Jackson, the executive director of the Chattahoochee River Conservancy, about the issue. His non-profit (formerly known as the Chattahoochee River Warden) champions the river by educating locals about its flora and fauna, and by providing services like water quality monitoring and habitat restoration. Henry is an advocate for dam removal, but also has a unique perspective since he is a lifelong Georgia resident, and tuned into the concerns of the community.

Henry Jackson, Executive Director of the Chattahoochee River Conservancy

Henry told me that “many members of the local community are strongly opposed to the removal of the dams… because they have been a fixture in their lives for generations.” Furthermore, he said “many are direct descendants of the workers who built the dams and they may see these structures as a symbol of their ancestor’s successes at carving a community out of wilderness… Change is never easy and the surrounding communities have experienced a significant amount of change over the last few decades. The town of Valley, Alabama has yet to recover from the closing of the mills. Hundreds of people lost their jobs in an area where employment opportunities are not easily found. I believe for many of these people the Chattahoochee River is their anchor and they are not ready to see it different from how they have always known it.”

In addition to the cultural value of the dams, fishing access is a major reason why locals are so vehemently opposed their removal. Fish (especially striped, white, spotted, and shoal bass) concentrate below the dams, and the power company maintains public access boat ramps, which provide excellent angling opportunities. Local anglers are furious about the dam removals taking away their fishing opportunities.

One of Amy Cottrell’s tagged shoal bass. Photo by Henry Hershey

The irony (in my opinion) is that anglers have the most to gain from the dam removals if species like the imperiled shoal bass can make a comeback. As habitat specialists, shoal bass have been negatively impacted by dams which have inundated and destroyed their habitat in the mainstem. Also, shoal bass can move long distances to spawn, and these dams could be limiting access to spawning habitat, which in turn could contribute to population declines. (For more on shoal bass, see Fisheries Blog Post “Stalking the Elusive Shoal Bass” by Amy Cottrell.) Although fishing access may decrease short term, angler satisfaction may increase long term if the populations grow as a result of dam removal.

These are not the first dams to be removed on the Chattahoochee. Henry saw the tremendous positive effects first hand in his home town of Columbus 6 years ago. The Eagle Phenix and City Mills Dams were removed in 2013 and 2014 respectively, and not without some resistance from the public. However, “the result has been the restoration of about 3 miles of river, a thriving paddlesports industry, and an entire city changing its relationship with a crucial natural resource. The removals forever changed how people fish in the downtown district of Columbus but they are still fishing, still catching fish, and the river and community is significantly healthier because of the project.”

Shoal lilies (aka spider lilies) Photo by Henry Hershey

No one expects these removals to be a magic fix to the Chattahoochee’s problems, especially not the groups who will be doing the ground work to restore native species and habitat. It will take lots of team work and collaboration to ensure that these removals go smoothly and that the long-term impacts are realized. On July 24th, 2019, the Southern Company (Georgia Power) submitted its final study plan for the removal projects, which includes some details on how and by whom habitat will be restored for native species. This plan and more documentation can be read at the following link: https://www.georgiapower.com/company/energy-industry/generating-plants/langdale-riverview-projects.html

For more information on the Chattahoochee River Conservancy, visit their website, and if you’re local, check out their facebook page for events to support their work: http://www.chattahoocheeriverconservancy.org/

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