Low flow: Now that Rivanna River is undammed

Now: A bit of Woolen Mills dam remains in September.
Then: Woolen Mills dam August 2007, as the breach began.

It's been over a year since the historic Woolen Mills dam on the Rivanna River came down in river health initiative, and depending on who you talk to, this deed either was the best thing that could be done for the river... or a travesty.

It was no surprise to the Rivanna Conservation Society's Jason Halbert, who spearheaded the breach of of the 140-year old dam, that the river's water level has fallen steeply–- as much as six to seven feet lower. But something did surprise him:

"How much of a rock garden was revealed once the water went down," he says. "You can hear the river at Riverview Park."

Over the summer, there was an incident in which dozens of gizzard shad were found floating belly up, allegedly the result of high temperatures. However, the gizzard shad have returned, says Halbert, who's heard a report of a bald eagle spotted tracking the shad.

And he still has hopes that within 10 years, the American shad, with which the Rivanna River once teemed, will return. Halbert has released American shad fry four times, hoping to imprint the Rivanna on them as home before they swim to the Atlantic.

It took Halbert several years to win the approval of the Woolen Mills neighborhood and the myriad regulatory agencies that regulate dams and rivers. But once the breaching began in August 2007, in a few days, the dam was history, with just a bit left standing as a gesture to history.

"People can see there was a dam there," says Halbert, noting that construction on two interpretive kiosks should be complete by the end of the year. He says natural grasses have been planted, as have trees such as river birch and willow.

However, Roger Voisinet, who lives on the river near Riverview Park, doesn't sound quite as happy about the change.

"They just got away with murder," is all he'd say, directing the Hook to this section of his website entitled "Woolen Mills dam destruction: One year later."

There, Voisinet decries the debris caught by the remaining blocks from the dam, the low water that's impacted fishing and kayaking, an alleged lack of fish and wildlife, and the trespassing and trash–- although the latter two complaints were made long before the dam breach.

His neighbor, Bill Maloney, also opposed dam removal, but today he says, "I'm happy they took it down. It's much more natural, it's healthier, and it's prettier."

Maloney acknowledges that the lower water level makes it harder to swim and kayak, and he stopped fishing because the water was too low. But he still likes it better.

"It's just prettier, more like a West Virginia river," explains Maloney.

"You can see surprisingly wonderful things no one has seen in 140 years," says photographer/neighbor Bill Emory.

"Now the water moves, you can see the rocks, and hear the water," says Kevin Cox, another Woolen Mills resident. "Before, it was a semi-stagnant mill pond."


what a shame