With dam gone, Catskill river flows freely

Posted: Friday, November 26, 2004

CUDDEBACKVILLE, N.Y. For the first time in nearly a century, American shad, brook trout, and a tiny endangered mussel are able to migrate up the fabled Neversink River past a site long blocked by a dam.

The 107-foot-wide, 6-foot-tall Cuddebackville dam, which produced hydropower from 1915 until 1945, was bashed to bits by backhoes this fall in a $2.2 million restoration project led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and The Nature Conservancy.

The removal of the steel-reinforced concrete dam on a Catskill river renowned as the birthplace of American fly fishing marked the first time in New York state history a dam was removed for purely environmental reasons.

It also was the first time the Corps worked on a construction project headed by a not-for-profit organization since the federal Water Resources Development Act of 1996 made such partnerships possible, said Brian Mulvenna, project manager for the Corps.

It was the latest of nearly 160 dam removal projects undertaken across the country during the past five years in a growing movement to return rivers to a free-flowing state, according to American Rivers, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C.

There are about 77,000 dams higher than 6 feet nationwide, and at least 7,000 in New York, according to American Rivers. Many were built to run mills that now are long gone. Others were used to control floods, store water supplies or create recreational lakes. Fewer than 2,500 generate electricity.

''Over the years, derelict and obsolete dams have been removed because of safety concerns, or because of the expense of maintaining and upgrading them,'' said Serena McClain of American Rivers. ''But starting in 1999, we've seen a movement toward removing dams for ecological reasons, to restore rivers.''

In 1999, the 162-year-old Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Maine became the first dam ordered removed by the federal government as a way of restoring the environment. The removal opened an upstream stretch of the river to stunning numbers of Atlantic salmon, striped bass, alewives and other fish.

It also unleashed a flood of other dam removal projects.

''The Edwards Dam opened people's eyes to the fact that it was economically feasible to do these projects,'' said Colin Apse, an aquatic ecologist for The Nature Conservancy involved in the Neversink project.

''For the Corps, there has definitely been a shift in focus from river control to river restoration,'' Mulvenna said. ''It's a shift toward looking at the bigger picture of what's best for the entire watershed, rather than focusing on single-purpose projects like flood control, water supply or hydropower.''

Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have removed dozens of dams in the last few years.

The Neversink is the most pristine stream in the 13,000-square-mile Delaware River watershed. Its headwaters are held in the Neversink Reservoir, one of six Catskill reservoirs that supply New York City's 8 million residents with drinking water.

It was on the Neversink that Theodore Gordon introduced the British sport of fly fishing to America more than a century ago. The rushing, rocky stream remains a popular destination for anglers from around the world.

The Cuddebackville dam, in woods about a mile back from the highway, was 65 miles northwest of New York City. Now that it has been removed and the glacial cobbles on the river bottom painstakingly restored to a natural state, Atlantic fish such as American shad will be able to migrate another 35 miles upstream to spawn.

Brown trout, rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, alewife and eel also will benefit from the cooler temperature and higher oxygen level in free-flowing waters.

A tiny mussel provided the greatest impetus to restore the river. In 1990, the federally endangered dwarf wedge mussel was discovered in the Neversink. The dam was the upstream limit of one of the world's largest populations of the rare mollusk.

The walnut-sized mussel, which requires very clear, pure water, disperses itself through a river system with the help of two tiny fish the tessellated darter and the mottled sculpin. The mussel lures a fish close by waving a wormlike appendage and then sprays the fish with larvae, which hitch a ride upriver.

Now that the dam is gone, the accessible habitat for the dwarf wedge mussel and another rare mussel, the alewife floater, has been greatly expanded, Apse said. Trout fishing also is likely to improve with the restoration of free-flowing river habitat.

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