Dammed once, restored now

Today you’re hearing from Eric Schrading, private lands coordinator in our New Jersey Field Office, as part of our series on fish passage.

The expense of owning a dam can be quite surprising to a landowner. Dr. Calvin Shen owned a 220 acre farm on Pohatcong Creek in central New Jersey, and on that creek was an earthen dam.

In late 2008, Dr. Shen realized the unreasonable costs of maintaining that 80-year-old Class 2 dam. That’s when he reached out to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to explore ways to breach the dam and restore the Pohatcong Creek.

The dam—Willever Lake dam—was built in Mansfield Township in the early 1900s. It was a “run-of-the-river” style dam probably for recreation and for irrigation water for local farms. Downstream of the dam, forested wetlands handle floodwater and agricultural lands support crops. The Pohatcong Creek itself is known for its high water quality and its trout production. Not to mention, the Pohatcong Creek runs directly into the well-known Delaware River.

Willever Lake. Credit: Eric Schrading/USFWS

Willever Lake. Credit: Eric Schrading/USFWS

The Service visited the dam several times, bringing potential partners with interest in dam removal and restoration of the river’s banks and nearby land. The Natural Resources Conservation Service quickly became a significant partner, assisting through several Farm Bill programs.

Ultimately, we came up with an ambitious plan to:

  • breach the dam,
  • install a bridge for crossing Pohatcong Creek,
  • stabilize the creek channel,
  • replant the lake bed, and
  • restore about 2 miles of the creek for brook trout, American eel, and other migratory and resident fish.

Dr. Shen was happy to see permits in hand and work begin.

“I began the Willever Lake dam breach for public safety reasons—a road crossed the dam and was in bad condition—but learned a lot about the negative biological impact the dam had on the Pohatcong Creek,” Dr. Shen said.

“In the course of the breach, I met some impressive, dedicated people at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, NRCS, Trout Unlimited and the New Jersey Audubon Society who helped the project with time, money and energy. I feel the success of the project was primarily due to the collaboration of all these interested parties.”

Most construction work was funded by NRCS, the Service and Dr. Shen. But money only got us so far.

We needed to plant willows, dogwoods, and a variety of riverside vegetation in the newly created creek and floodplain. And it got done, thanks to donations from Pinelands Nursery and hard effort and sweat from New Jersey Audubon Society, Trout Unlimited, students from Warren County Community College, and employees from NRCS and the Service.

Both pictures are of planting crews. Credit: Eric Schrading/USFWS
Both pictures are of planting crews. Credit: Eric Schrading/USFWS

Both pictures are of planting crews. Credit: Eric Schrading/USFWS

We finished most of the work and are now monitoring the response of wildlife. The project reconnected 2 miles of the Pohatcong Creek for native fish and restoration of over 25 acres of forested wetlands.

Though that may not seem like much, it’s a lot for the thousands of frog and toad tadpoles, the solitary sandpipers and the killdeer that we’ve already seen—not to mention the future nesting for wood duck, a variety of warblers, woodcock, and flycatchers.

Now we just wait, and let the plants grow.

This is part of a series on fish passage. Read the other blog posts here.

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