The Return of a River

Today we’re hearing from guest blogger, Bill Tanger, chairmember of Friends of the Rivers of Virginia, who will be sharing the story of the Pigg River Dam Removal.

In 1915, an entrepreneur in Rocky Mount, Virginia built a dam for the area’s first electricity. The Pigg River Power Dam was 200 feet across and 25 feet tall and created a pond that filled a long ravine for two miles upstream.  Sediment buildup started immediately and after 50 years, the capacity of the dam was reduced to almost nothing and the dam was left abandoned.

One hundred years later in 2015, Friends of the Rivers of Virginia (FORVA) bought the dam.  Many considered this purchase to be sheer folly.  What organization in its right mind would want to buy an abandoned dam, with all its liability and headaches?

Bill Tanger, River Man

The Fish & Wildlife Service conducted several studies on the impacts of the dam, like sediment sampling, fish habitat studies and fish surveys.  If removed, the dam would open up a 70-mile stretch of continuous river to fish migration and improved habitat.

The Pigg River has a modest fishery, but is also home to the endangered Roanoke logperch.  The logperch, has the habit of flipping over stones to find its food, and thus had a certain public relations appeal.  But it carried more weight than its six inches would suggest, with its federal protection. In addition, paddlers had an abiding interest in freeing up the river for recreation.  Upstream, the county supported several annual river events, like the Pigg River Ramble, a 4 mile float and riverside picnic.  The county also had drawn up a plan for a whitewater park just below the dam.

But the cost of removal was estimated at a million dollars or more.

Enter Duke Energy, who at the time was seeking voluntary restoration projects to clean up a large coal ash spill on the nearby Dan River in North Carolina, located in the same watershed at the Pigg River.  The spill released ash that traveled 70 miles downstream through South Central Virginia.  Proposed river restoration projects for the watershed, including the Pigg River dam removal, were drawn up and submitted for consideration.

The Pigg River dam removal proposal had the best score of any of the projects and received just over a million dollars for remediation. It had an endangered species benefits, great potential for river recreation, and historical landmarks.  Most importantly, it had a 70-mile river restoration impact and would lower the risk of damage to public infrastructure downstream.

In 2016, work began to breach the dam using an excavator with a hydraulic hammer and thumb. Day by day, the water, woody debris and sediment behind the dam began to flow downstream. The river was returning.  Alan O’Hara, one of the riparian owners along the former impoundment pond put it best. He sent an email to FORVA saying:  “I want to thank you. You gave me back the river.”


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