Shad-well: Woolen Mills dam breach OK'd

The Rivanna River once teemed with American shad. Why do you think they called Jefferson's birthplace Shadwell?

By 1830, the shad that fed the colonists were doomed, not only on the James River, but also on the local stretch of the Rivanna. That's when the Woolen Mills dam was built, and the American shad found yet another obstacle on the way to their spawning grounds.

Things may be looking a shad better.

When a local nonprofit called the Rivanna Conservation Society first suggested the idea of breaching the 175-year old structure back in 2001, there was some opposition in the Woolen Mills neighborhood, particularly from riverfront property owners.

On the other side of the debate, along with the shad lovers, were those who wanted to be able to canoe or kayak down the Rivanna without running into the dam.

Ultimately the decision to breach or not to breach fell upon the dam's owner, Presley Thach, who acquired the dam when his father bought the old Woolen Mills complex in 1964.

Thach gave the Society access to study the issue, and he adopted a wait-and-see posture, saying he was keeping an open mind about the project until the analysis was finished.

The RCS hired an engineering firm that in November made its recommendation: a partial breach– leaving approximately 75 feet of the original 270 feet of the historic granite block dam.

"I think it's a great solution to keep the historical part and breach the dam," says Jason Halbert, who's spearheaded the study. "It's a win-win situation."

Thach agrees. "We support the concept of breaching the dam and agree in principle to follow on with the RCS recommendations," he says.

Improved river habitat and environment, improved accessibility for recreational purposes, and the safety of the crumbling structure are factors that helped Thach make his decision.

Halbert met with the Woolen Mills neighborhood association January 27 and swayed some of those who'd opposed the breach. Dr. Bill Maloney was one.

"They sort of convinced me," says Maloney. "Personally, I would rather not do anything, but for the health of the river, it's probably best."

Maloney loves the dam for its historical significance. "It's cut stone, and there are very few of those left," he says. "There's an old lock, and the dam is a pretty critical historical structure in the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society."

Still, several people at the meeting gave "rather impassioned speeches" in favor of taking down the dam, says Halbert.

Bill Emory compared the dam to a fence across a trail. "It curtails people's downriver movement; it prevents fish from moving upstream," he told his neighbors. "It is time to let the river run free."

The feasibility study predicts that the breach will lower the river's height by six and half feet above the dam while increasing its velocity by a third of a foot per second. Below the dam, there will be "virtually no changes."

Thach is confident the breach has solid community support– something that wasn't so clear initially. He credits Halbert with taking it slowly. "My best perception is he wants to educate the community on what's going on and is intensely interested in community support," says Thach.

"We certainly aren't out to create controversy," says Halbert, who's unperturbed by the project's "snail's pace." It has already taken over three years and could take several more before the first block of the dam is removed.

Halbert believes that a separate study on the health of the Rivanna that showed the benefits of breaching the dam helped sway sentiment on the neighborhood landmark. "This is something we can do to help restore the Chesapeake watershed," he says.

The Rivanna Conservation Society is holding a public presentation March 3 at 6:30pm at the Downtown Visitors Center.

Next step? Raising the $250,000 needed for the partial dam removal.

Of course, the RCS was pretty adept at raising nearly $40,000 to conduct the breach study. And after the explosive breach of the Embrey Dam on the James River last year, taking down old dams is au courant in environmental circles.

Former breach opponent Maloney thinks that in a community where thousands of dollars are donated to build a batteau, the RCS will be able to collect the money.

"These guys are great," he says. "They care about the river. They've done their work."

The historic Woolen Mills Dam is going down– at least partially.

Rivanna Conservation Society member Jason Halbert, who's been working on taking down the dam since 2001, believes its removal is crucial to the health of the Rivanna.