Hot dam: Should it stay or should it go?

Picture a lazy summer day, floating on an inner tube in the mill pond on the Rivanna. Life doesn't get much better than that– unless you're Sally Shad trying to get up the river to spawn before your whole species is extinct, and a dam is in the way.

Okay, make that a lazy summer day, and you're canoeing down the Rivanna. Life doesn't get much betteruntil you come to the Woolen Mills dam. Finding there's no easy portage, you curse as you struggle to get your canoe around the dam and continue your journey downstream. Then, like Sally Shad, you may start to wonder, why is that dam still there?

Certainly it's not to generate power. Current environmental wisdom even dictates that dams are bad for the health of rivers and the fish that spawn in them. But what happens when the dam in question is an integral part of the history and fabric of a neighborhood?

Such is the dilemma facing the Woolen Mills neighborhood. The crumbling community landmark still provides an idyllic Rivanna River setting that hasn't changed much since the early 19th century and that many are loathe to lose no matter how many American shad must be sacrificed to maintain the status quo.

On the other side of the dam, so to speak, is the Rivanna Conservation Society, which is investigating the feasibility of getting rid of the dam in part or in whole, and gathering heavy-duty environmental support to do so.

The person who ultimately will make the decision is owner Presley Thach, whose father bought Woolen Mills in 1964 and who has steadfastly professed to be neither for nor against the idea of breaching the dam since it was first broached with him.

Jason Halbert of the Rivanna Conservation Society is spearheading the effort to dismantle the dam. Halbert's impeccable environmental credentials include employment with the now-defunct green-leaning W. Alton Jones Foundation and now its offspring, the Oak Hill Fund. Even among greens, says a former coworker, Halbert is known for his ecological devotion: He's the kind of guy who stops on a stroll around the dam to pick up a discarded plastic milk jug.

And he's rounded up some impressive supporters: The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the local League of Women Voters, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Nature Conservancy, and the Thomas Jefferson Chapter of Trout Unlimited all favor a study on breaching the dam.

What prompted him to take on the Woolen Mills' sacred cow? Halbert lists a number of motives: improving the health of the river, recreational opportunities, and the community's connection with the Rivanna.

Perhaps most importantly, it's the American shad that drives Halbert. "They are a fascinating fish, and I admit I'm consumed by a certain mysteriousness that surrounds the fish, partly because they were an integral part of human and animal life here for millennia, and most people have never even eaten or seen one," he says.

Halbert compares the American shad (Latin name: Alosa sapidissima, which means "most delicious" or "most tasty") to the American chestnut. "They're both Appalachian icons, if you ask me, and they're largely extirpated from their original range completely due to human interference."

Like salmon, their better-known Pacific brethren, Virginia's native fish live out their days in the ocean, and then are compelled by their genes to make what's often a last, dying trek back upstream to spawn.

In 1999, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries released more than a million of the endangered shad into the Rivanna River at Crofton Landing, about 10 miles below the dam. Between 2004 and 2007, they're scheduled to return from the Atlantic to make their journey up the James and then the Rivanna. Some of the survivors from that long haul will run smack into the Woolen Mills dam.



 To breach, or not to breach...

Last spring, Halbert's vision for a dam-free river was granted an audience with the Woolen Mills Neighborhood Association. However, at the meeting, held in the old Woolen Mills Chapel, Halbert was placed last on the agenda, and he was introduced as a Belmont resident– signs that could signal that his project will face an upstream swim, or worse: that he's "not from around here."

Halbert likes to quote former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt about this country's 75,000 dams: Since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, America has, on average, constructed a dam a day.

But now that trend has turned. In November, Portland General Electric announced it was dismantling two dams in Oregon. While the two dams produce 10 megawatts, a drop in the 2,000-megawatt bucket of electricity PGE generates, they're both fully functioning hydroelectric dams.

Other dam-keepers are looking at less destructive although arguably less effectivemeasures, such as fish ladders. In 1999, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries opened a $1.5 million fish ladder at Bosher's Dam on the James River above Richmond, the first time spawning fish were able to swim past the dam since 1823, according to the department.

Halbert says the idea of dam breaching is nothing new. In 1987, Virginia signed on to the Chesapeake Bay Agreement with the goal of opening the state's 415 miles of spawning habitats to migratory fish.

The Bosher's Dam Fishway opened 138 miles of that goal. And the breaching of Woolen Mills dam would open up not only the 3.4 miles to the South Fork Dam, but also the 13 miles of the North Fork Rivanna to total another 22 miles for the American shad, which once ruled Virginia's rivers.

Why is the shad important other than as the draw for politicos at the annual Shad Planking?

"Shad are our salmon," says Halbert. "We've been preventing them from doing their thing for almost 200 years."

For settlers to Virginia, shad was the other white meat. Shad once "amounted to half a hog crop for the entire population of the basin of the James," claims a Virginia Commission of Fisheries 1875 annual report.

The James teemed with shad, as well as with stripers, herring, sturgeon, and eel. "In the spring of the year, herrings come up in such abundance... to spawn, that it is almost impossible to ride through without treading on them," wrote Robert Beverley in 1705.

During the 1700s, as fish populations dwindled, colonists passed laws requiring the removal of obstructions or construction of fish passages, according to Virginia Wildlife magazine, which comments, "Surely a society that can send men to the moon and bring them back, can send fish up a river."


 Halbert cites economic reasons for tearing down the dam. In July of this year, legislation went into effect in Virginia that requires annual inspections of dams, after which they must be repaired or face fines.

"It costs far less to remove the dam once than repair it," he says. The dam, built in 1830, is eroding and losing stone blocks.

Halbert points to the top blocks on the dam. "Notice that they're dry, and the stones underneath are wet," he instructs. "That mean it's leaking, and that loosens the stones underneath." He predicts the dam eventually will collapse.

And then there are the safety concerns. The dramatic beauty of the dam cannot help but attract people, and periodically someone is injured on it. In August 2001, a woman fell off and broke her ankle. Unsurprisingly, alcohol is often involved.

Pat Punch has another reason for wanting to see the dam down: "I'd like to canoe down the river, and right now, it's a real pain to portage around." He says Albemarle County is working on a new landing at Pen Park. "With the dam out, it would be a heck of a lot more fun to go to Milton," without having to stop at the dam and carry a boat around it.

And Punch, who's also a member of the Rivanna Conservation Society, thinks portage at the dam is hazardous. Besides having to climb over rocks and through poison ivy carrying a heavy canoe loaded with gear up a steep embankment and then down again, "There's always the possibility of snags or tripping."

What about the dam's historic significance? "The purpose was to provide power to Woolen Mills," says Punch. "It's outlived that. Just because it's old doesn't mean it should stay there."

Punch is sympathetic to "those poor fish," too.

"The shad really want to go upstream," he says. "Canoeists really want to go downstream. The dam is in the middle blocking the river for both groups."


Not in my backyard

Three historic brick duplexes line the end of East Market Street. Since 1982, realtor Roger Voisinet has lived in one of them. He says it was built in the 1830s and used to house the manager of the Woolen Mills.

For Voisinet, the loss of the dam, which makes the Rivanna River lake-like at his back yard, would be a "catastrophe."

Vosinet attended the neighborhood meeting where "some guy who seems to think it's his business gave a talk," he says. Voisinet calls Halbert's slide show "disingenuous," and adds, "I was too mad to say anything at the meeting."

If the dam is torn down, he foresees his backyard as a large, wide stretch of mud where nothing will grow.

Halbert says that would be only temporary. Landscaping would be included in any cost projections for breaching or partially breaching the dam, and with active plantings in the rich bottomland soil, it'd be green in a year, Halbert predicts.

 With the river no longer a barrier, Voisinet also fears a loss of privacy and security from people walking through his yard.

"My house has taken the brunt of the public's desire to park trailers" and use the river for boating, he says. "Everyone acts like fishermen and canoeists are so great," but to Voisinet, they're "pretty bad neighbors."

"I've been picking up litter for 20 years," he says, and in the 1980s, vandalism was a problem.

Voisinet points out historic aspects of the dam, which was built in 1830 to power what would become Charlottesville's first major industry.

"This whole neighborhood owes its existence to the Woolen Mills dam," says Voisinet. He wonders what's next– tearing down the Woolen Mills Chapel to put in low-income housing?

Ed Lay, UVA professor of architecture and author of The Architecture of Jefferson Country, agrees with Voisinet.

"There's a visual environment these environmentalists need to think about."

Neither the dam nor the mill is a registered Virginia historic landmark, although an archivist at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources says they should be. Woolen Mills was proposed as a historic district in 1983, but nothing happened with that. And the city has protected four buildings in Woolen Mills, including the chapel, with a historic designation.

Lay notes that notes that the dam is the last remnant of the original mill and that aesthetic considerations have merit. "Historically, it's always easier to tear down something than fix it," he says. "Once it's gone, it's gone. That's sad."

Lay asks about a fish ladder, and in fact, there is one across the river on the side owned by State Farm Insurance. The only problem, according to Halbert, is that it doesn't work. "Shad can't jump," he explains.

Another in the dam preservation camp is Pete Runge, an amateur historian with the Virginia Canals and Navigation Society. He opposes the dam being breached. But if it's done, "It needs to be done properly," says Runge, with an archaeologist present. He's certain all sorts of artifacts lie at the base of the 170-year-old dam, perhaps even the foundation of an earlier dam.

"I'd be astounded if there weren't sunken boats" at the dam's foundation, he predicts.

Even though he's a kayaker, Runge thinks portaging around the dam is easy, and he'd prefer to see the dam left, or better yet, fixed up. "For the cost both monetary and cultural, breaching it seems a bit much."

How have other Woolen Mills residents responded to the idea of breaching the dam? "It's not really any of their business," Voisinet says, but "one person snidely told me I'd have to find another place to go swimming."

One resident who favors a dam-less neighborhood and who requests his name not be used, describes Woolen Mills as a hotbed of Democrats, known for their environmental tendencies. "But Democrats feel differently about environmental issues when they lose their own personal paddling pond," he chortles.

However, Halbert doesn't think it's that easy. "I don't assume anybody is going to jump on board because they're an environmentalist."

Like Halbert, Kay Slaughter also sports impeccable environmental credentials. A former (Democratic) Charlottesville mayor who works at the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Woolen Mills resident is well aware that there's a national trend to remove dams. But the idea of breaching the Woolen Mills dam is one "I haven't jumped up to embrace," she says.

"In fact, you've got another dam upstream at the Rivanna Reservoir," she notes. "It's not like you're returning the river to its natural environment."

She acknowledges some sympathy to the idea of dam breaching, but she also has sympathy for the several landowners whose property will be affected. "It hasn't been shown why it should be done," she says.


Mixed reviews

UVA student (and occasional Hook contributor) Wesley Hottot has shot two films featuring the Woolen Mills dam. "From a filmic perspective," he says, the idea of dismantling the dam is "tragic."

He says the water on the lower side of the dam is like a creek, and calls the stagnant, green water above the dam "primordial" in its beauty when the light hits the algae.

"It's a really nice, naturally decrepit area," he says. "Even if you're not photographing it, it's a nice place to find solace."

Hottot wouldn't go so far as to swim in the waters around the dam. "It's gross," he says. When he once fell into the river, his skin was "slimy" when he got out.

And while fully admitting he knows nothing about the environmental issues, it seems to Hottot that the river needs to be moving. "If they need to take apart the dam to make the river more viable, I'm for it."

"It's imaginable the benefits would outweigh three people having their own swimming hole," says another Woolen Mills resident, who does not want his name used. This homeowner says the clouds of mosquitoes in the 'hood are "like a tundra," and thinks a downed dam would help that.

Democratic City Council candidate Alexandria Searls also lives in Woolen Mills. She calls the dam "photographically popular." As for breaching it, she needs to know more. Is the dam safe? How much land and privacy would property owners like Voisinet lose? What would it do for the river?

"I would support a study," she says.

Actually, that's what Halbert is working toward. In July, he was awarded a $15,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in partnership with the American Rivers organization.

Early in December, he'll get word on a couple of other grant applications that would provide the $25,000 to $30,000 needed to hire an engineering and design firm to do a study to see if a partial breach of the dam is feasible. "Without the money in place, it's premature" to go beyond that, and unless he gets the additional grants, the first $15,000 must be returned, he says.

Down at the end of Market Street at the old Woolen Mills building that now houses his moving and storage company, Presley Thach, who owns the dam and who will decide its fate, is keeping his cards close to his vest. "I'm very open minded," he says.

Even before Halbert talked to the neighborhood association, Thach predicted the opposition of neighbors, particularly those whose property is adjacent to the river.

"We've given permission to perform the study," he says but not for the demolition.

Halbert is almost two years into lobbying for breaching the dam, and it could be another year until it's time for Thach to make a decision. Meanwhile, Halbert keeps Thach posted on the progress.

One question Thach can't answer is who would pay for the demolition.

"I don't intend to pay for it," Thach says. That would leave Halbert to scrounge up more funding if Thach consents.

Does Halbert think neighborhood opposition will influence Thach? "Sure, if tons of people are against it," he answers. However, he's confident the arguments to do it are strong.

"It fits in with the state's plans for the health of rivers and fisheries," he explains. "It just makes sense."

And while some Woolen Mills residents may not agree, "This isn't some crusade," says Halbert. "Really, what we've done is raise a lot of questions. Now we need to answer them and address concerns."

Presley Thach has a question. "Have you looked at the dam recently?" he asks. "It's in disrepair and falling apart." And whatever decision he makes, that's a fact of life that's not likely to change for this ancient structure.


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