NEWS- Dam demo: Breach at Woolen Mills good for shad

Half a million tiny shad will be dumped into the Rivanna River at Darden Towe Park this spring. And soon, after several years in the ocean, they'll have a way to return to their old spawning grounds.

The Rivanna Conservation Society has long lobbied to breach the 1830 Woolen Mills dam so the American shad can return to spawning waters it hasn't seen in nearly 200 years.

Last week, Albemarle County issued a demolition permit for a partial breach of the dam.

"This is the first one in a series of approvals," says Jason Halbert, the Conservation Society member who's spearheaded the breach for the past five-and-a-half years, winning the support of most of the Woolen Mills neighborhood and the dam's owner.

Presley Thach's father bought the old mill in 1964, and the deal included the dam. Thach took a wait-and-see position when Halbert first broached the breach, but he did allow the conservation group to conduct a study of its removal and eventually gave permission to take down most of the granite block dam leaving only 75 to 95 feet standing.

The turning point? "Once the neighborhood was on board," answers Thach. "It always looked like removing the dam was positive, but we didn't want to do that until they were on board."

Former Woolen Mills Neighborhood Association president Allison Ewing presided over a January 2005 meeting at which the Society presented the results of its engineering study.

"At the meeting, I asked for a show of hands, and there seemed to be overall support," she recalls. And Ewing thinks it will be good for the river to remove the dam.

Ewing, a "green" housing architect, says that the neighborhood– whose vocal members include a lawn-mowing refusenik and an environmentally employed former mayor– now mostly supports the project.

But some folks whose property abuts the river see Halbert as meddling in their backyards. They include solar energy pioneer Roger Voisinet, who lives in one of three historic East Market street duplexes on the Rivanna built in the 1830s for the mill's manager.

Voisinet claims that saying the neighborhood supports tearing down the dam is like "saying the U.S. supports the war in Iraq. The only people who should have a say are those on the river."

Without the dam, there would be no Woolen Mills neighborhood, says Voisinet. "The dam was to the Woolen Mills factory what the sun is to the earth," he declares. "It's the most important factor in the Woolen Mills neighborhood history."

Voisinet questions the impact a breached dam will have on the river and the importance of bringing shad back. "This is all because someone became spokesperson for the shad," he says. "Who's the spokesperson for migrating geese?"

Dan Sebring is a regular on the Rivanna Trail every morning, and he, too, prefers leaving the dam intact, calling the breach "a feel-good project." He's concerned about the ecology that's developed over the past 150 years in the waters on the upper side of the dam. "It's become a meeting place for wood ducks and Canadian geese because of the still water and breadth of the river," he says.

Last April, 4,000 shad fry were released in the Rivanna in the hopes that in four to six years they'll return as adults to spawn. "That's the vision driving me, to have shad return as they have for thousands of years," Halbert says.

"They probably made good bass food," says Sebring.

The Albemarle permit will be attached to an application that goes to the Virginia Marine Resources Council, and from there the plan will be scrutinized by a slew of state and federal agencies, including the Department of Historical Resources, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Department of Environmental Quality, and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Those agencies have been reviewing the plan, and Halbert doesn't expect a problem getting approval.

As soon as he has permits in hand, the Society will send the project out for competitive bid. He declines to say how much money the group has raised through grants and individual donations, but says there's still some fundraising to be done.

"We hope to start the deconstruction process in late summer or early fall," says Halbert, and have the waters unleashed by the end of the year. "The idea," he says, "is to leave a significant portion of the dam standing for historical representation."

Halbert's work isn't done. He's looking at breaching another dam, but he declines to say where. "We have the owner's permission, so that one should be easier," he says.

Sixty-five percent of the Woolen Mills dam could be down by the end of the year.