Lassiter Mill Dam Removed on Uwharrie River in North Carolina

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VIDEO – As metal smashes rock and concrete, two track hoe excavators — one armed with a pneumatic jackhammer — chisel away Lassiter Mill Dam in the Uwharrie River

By Glynn Wilson

The Lassiter Mill Dam on North Carolina’s Uwharrie River was removed in August, bringing the river back to free-flowing status and opening up opportunities for recreation and restoring spawning grounds for the American shad.


Dam removal

Loud mechanical noises are unusual in this part of Randolph County, nestled in the forests and pastures of the ancient Uwharrie Mountains in North Carolina. But conservation-minded landowners accept these significant measures needed to restore the natural flow of water through their land, according to a press advisory Wednesday from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Back in 1805, folks concerned about dam construction along the Uwharrie River said that due to the construction of the dam they were “deprived of the benefits that providence by nature has bestowed upon us.” This August the Uwharrie River is being restored back to the free flowing conditions these people petitioned for over 200 years ago.

“These removals reflect the work of a lot of people, from private landowners to federal agencies, coming together to improve the health of the river,” said Piedmont Conservation Council chair Jacob Leech. “This is a great example of a strong, effective partnership between nonprofits and government agencies. We hope to see many more obsolete dams removed this way throughout the southeast region.”

The Lassiter Mill dam, 12 feet high and 200 feet long, historically blocked migrating American shad from reaching spawning habitat in the upper Uwharrie River and its’ tributaries. It also blocked and separated local fish populations and affected the entire river habitat. The dam created a wall that basically turned the free-flowing river environment into a stagnant pond environment — too slow, too deep, and too silty for the large diversity of mussels and fish that need the natural shallow, fast flowing water to survive.

The Uwharrie River and its tributaries are filled with rare aquatic wonders unique to the Piedmont region of central North Carolina. The river is recognized as a Significant Natural Heritage Area of “Very High” significance by the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program for its biological diversity containing habitat for sixteen aquatic species of fish, mussels, and salamanders that are considered rare, threatened or endangered.

Removing Lassiter Mill Dam opened up an additional 14.6 miles of potential spawning habitat for fish on the main stem of the river and an overall total of 189 river miles, including tributary streams to the river. The primary indicators of project success in the future, once passage is provided at downstream dams, will be the passage of American shad and eel, increases in species richness and/or abundance, and habitat improvements up and downstream. Other benefits include a safe passage for watercraft and enhanced recreational fishing.

“Initial estimated costs of the project were much greater than the actual cost, mainly because the fact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is doing the actual demolition with their own staff and rented equipment,” Leech said. “This is a tremendous benefit and cost savings for the project.”

The Shad Are Coming

In the next few years, Duke Energy-Progress plans to trap and transport over 20,000 American shad and release the fish into the Pee Dee River above Lake Tillery, where the Uwharrie River joins. The work will be done as part of an agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for relicensing of several hydropower dams along the Yadkin-Pee Dee River. This influx of shad will boost the stock and accelerate species recruitment within the headwaters of the Uwharrie River.

“We could not have made this project possible without the voluntary efforts of the private landowner,” said Laura Fogo, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “They enabled partners to motivate and leverage resources for this river restoration.”

It takes a partnership to accomplish a river restoration. American Rivers, Piedmont Conservation Council, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and most of all, the landowners teamed up to restore aquatic life passage on the Uwharrie River by removing this dam. Other research partners are the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, Duke Energy-Progress, Appalachian State University, Duke University, University of Virginia and a host of volunteers.

American Rivers awarded a grant to the Piedmont Conservation Council to manage, design and permit the removal. The Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, and the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration Community-based Restoration Program, provided funding. The Service’s Fish Passage Program provided funding for manpower and heavy equipment for deconstruction.

Service biologist Fogo views this project as part of a landscape level, watershed restoration initiative within the Greater Uwharrie Conservation Partnership focal area. Lassiter Mill Dam is the third dam removed from the Pee Dee watershed. Two other dams were removed by the same group located on the Little River and Densons Creek in Montgomery County last year.

An additional two more, Smitherman’s Mill Dam and Troy Reservoir No. 2 within the Little River watershed, are the remaining scheduled for removal by 2014-15. Collectively, all five projects will reconnect aquatic life passage on approximately 54 miles of river, 10 miles of creek, and 318 miles of perennial tributaries.

© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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