Downing Harvell Dam opens up 127 miles of Virginia’s Appomattox River

Harvell Dam on the Appomattox River

Today we hear from Albert Spells, our fisheries coordinator for Virginia, sharing his story about the recent demolition of the Harvell Dam and what it means for migratory fish.

Harvell Dam_GONE_AWeaver

Photo credit: Virginia Dept of Game and Inland Fisheries/ Alan Weaver

Albert Spells, Virginia Fisheries Coordinator. Photo: USFWS

Albert Spells, Virginia Fisheries Coordinator. Photo credit: USFWS

Wow! It has  been almost surreal to experience the Harvell Dam being removed in Petersburg, Virginia. It is a project I have worked on for nearly five years, and it is so gratifying to see the water flowing freely along this stretch of the Appomattox River.

Harvell Dam on the Appomattox River

The Harvell Dam as it sat in the Appomattox River in Petersburg, Virginia. Photo credit: Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries/ Alan Weaver

Since 1930 the dam has been a clog in the free flow of the river, impeding fish and other aquatic wildlife from reaching their native habitats. There is even historical evidence that there has been a dam structure at or near the site of the Harvell Dam dating back to the mid-1700s. And just below the site of the dam there is still visible evidence that Native Americans altered fish movement with rock weirs to help collect food.

All these structures have impounded the river’s free flow and for centuries have blocked upstream movement of American shad, river herring, hickory shad, striped bass and American eel.

Working to remove the Harvell Dam. Photo Credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

Working to remove the Harvell Dam. Photo Credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

On July 1, 2014, work began to remove the dam. Deconstruction was slow to begin, but on July 23 water breached the barricade. And now, with the demolition complete, the river runs freely again for the first time in more than 250 years. A good change has come upon the river; it’s been a long time coming.

Dam removal is complete: A free flowing Appomattox River. Photo credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

Dam removal is complete: A free flowing Appomattox River. Photo credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

From a viewpoint at the dam’s former site, I have seen American shad, American eel, river herring and other fish species swimming in the river. These migrant swimmers have gained access to nearly 127 miles of spawning and nursery habitat upstream. And although there are additional man-made obstacles structures upstream, there are fishways installed that allow passage past them.

I am excited about the possibilities of improved fish returns and plan to monitor fish movement on the river next spring and in the years to come.

Photo credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

Photo credit: USFWS/ Albert Spells

Many partners have made this event possible, but none more than the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the great work of Fish Passage Coordinator Alan Weaver. The VDGIF and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program funded the feasibility study for the dam removal. The design and removal phase was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Restoration Center, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Fish Passage Program and VDGIF. American Rivers has continued to provide much needed support and promotion of the project, and the project would also not be possible without the cooperation of the owner, Harvell Dam Corporation and local support from the City of Petersburg.

Read the news release to learn more about this project.

5 Comments on “Downing Harvell Dam opens up 127 miles of Virginia’s Appomattox River

  1. The news that the Appomattox is running free at Petersburg is very good news. As a member of the FERC hydro compliance staff in 1992, the Harvell Dam (Project 8657) landed on my desk for failure to comply with the environmental requirements (that was 22 years and 4 months ago). This has been a long time coming and is gratifying news. Fish are now passing the dam location – not in the manner envisioned in the project’s exemption’s requirements, but try as the FERC staff might, the exemptee couldn’t be persuaded to take the envisioned route to providing fish passage.

    • Monica, we are very pleased that this project came to fruition. But for the staying power of the partners it would not have. This was trully a team effort and a better outcome than providing a fishway at the dam.

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