Dismantling a dam, improving Middle Oconee River for wildlife, recreationalists

By David Pendered

There was a time when the removal of a dam across a river was described in near Biblical terms, according to an account of the time. Such words have yet to be spoken regarding the removal of most of a dam across the Middle Oconee River, but time will tell as fish and recreational users adjust to the free-flowing river.

All but the historic portions of White Dam have been removed from the site where it blocked the Middle Oconee River at a location south of Athens. Credit: news.uga.edu

Here’s how Bruce Babbitt, then U.S. secretary of the interior, described the removal in 1999 of Edwards Dam, across Maine’s Kennebec River. This was the first removal of a dam against its owner’s wishes, and followed a federal decision that the dam’s use as a power source was overwhelmed by its negative environmental impacts.

As reported by John McPhee in the Sept. 27, 1999 edition of The New Yorker, “Babbitt waxed almost Biblical:

  • “For healthy rivers and fisheries, the removal sets an important precedent. You’re going to look back in years hence and say, ‘It all began right here on this riverbank.’ It’s about coming together to restore the waters, recognizing that the rivers in turn have the power to restore our communities.”

As if there were any doubt about that last sentence, consider the hopes raised by plans to restore waterways in Atlanta including the Upper Proctor Creek Watershed, the Chattahoochee River and the Flint River.

Just as the Edwards Dam was the first of its class of removals, the White Dam – located south of Athens on the Middle Oconee River – is the first in Georgia to be removed under another federal provision. This one enables a dam to be removed for the sole purpose of restoring aquatic habitat.

Oconee dam, locator map

White Dam was among a number of structures that impeded water flow along stretches of the Oconee River as it flows toward the Altamaha River. Credit: UGA, ‘Considerations for Removal of White Dam on the Middle Oconee River,’ 2015

Hopes are high that flora and fauna will rebound along the river, according to a 2015 research practicum conducted by students at the University of Georgia – Considerations for Removal of White Dam on the Middle Oconee River.

The Georgia Water Coalition named the White Dam’s owner to its list of clean water heroes in the 2018 Clean 13 Report, released last week. The award recognized the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources for dismantling most of the dam. Now, a 22-mile stretch of the river is a free-flowing waterway of improving habitat for numerous fish species.

Meantime, UGA’s 2015 report contains news both good and less-than-good.

The good new included an observation that a partial removal of the dam would:

  • “[A]llow for successful upstream or downstream passage by river biota for the majority of the year.” Biota is a term that encompasses living things including animals, plants and fungi.

However, a middle section of the report, the authors suggest expectations not be set too high, in terms of fish repopulating the area. Some fish can’t even reach this stretch of waterway because of dams that remain downriver:

  • “[R]emoval of White Dam will not significantly change fish passage along the length of the Oconee River for either robust redhorse or American shad, as multiple dams downstream of White Dam currently prevent upstream fish passage into this area.

    Oconee dam, equation

    UGA scientists used this equation in determing that White Dam has prevented fish from swimming north of the dam. Fish would have to travel at least 11 feet per second to get through the dam, and the Altamaha shiner swims at just over 2 feet per second. Credit: UGA, ‘Considerations for Removal of White Dam on the Middle Oconee River,’ 2015

  • “Downstream dams include two large hydroelectric dams run by Georgia Power (Sinclair and Wallace) that lie between White Dam and the current upstream limit of these fish species. Thus, while removal of White Dam would open the stream reach above Barnett Shoals Dam, fish accessibility and utilization of newly available area is dependent on improved fish passage at downstream dams.”

Athough the entire dam wasn’t removed, the only portion still intact was retained for its historic value – the power house and related significant components that date to construction in 1911.

UGA scientists have considered for years how best to resolve management issues related to a dam that no longer needed for its original purpose – to power a nearby textile manufacturing operation.

These issues include debris getting stuck in portions of the dam where power-generating turbines were removed decades ago. UGA, as the dam’s owner, was responsible for clearing the tree branches, logs and other items that bobbed in the stream.

 

The two portals in the White Dam, across the Middle Oconee River, once housed turbines that generated electricity for a nearby textile manufacturing plant. UGA and its partners removed most of the dam in July. Credit: onlineathens.com

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

3 replies
  1. Frank Walsh says:

    Dear Mr. Pendered,

    Thank you for this interesting report on that dam removal. Do you – or any of your readership -know if this will increase even if a little the water flow on down the Oconee heading towards the lake. That river has tended to be rather mucky and very slow moving most of the time except in a storm.

    Best regards,

    Frank Walsh
    ——————Report

    Reply
  2. James Shelton says:

    Frank, the White Dam project won’t change downstream flows. However, it will alter the channel shape in the adjacent area to a more natural morphology.Report

    Reply

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