For two centuries or so, the Uwharrie River dam backed up water to power a grist mill, continuing to wall off the river even after the mill ceased operating in the 1970s.
Last month, a dam-busting coalition that seeks to restore naturally flowing waterways demolished the 12-foot-high Lassiter Mill Dam.
The dam’s removal opened 15 miles of the upper Uwharrie, northeast of Albemarle. It now connects 40 free-flowing river miles that one day will welcome the return of a saltwater fish – in the eastern Piedmont, surrounded by the Uwharrie Mountains, nearly 200 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.
The fish is the American shad, a regular visitor to Piedmont rivers more than 100 years ago. In spring, shad for eons made their way from the Atlantic Ocean via the Great Pee Dee River in South Carolina, into North Carolina’s Pee Dee River. From the Pee Dee, schools of shad peeled off and swam up the Uwharrie (pronounced yuu-WAHR-ee) to spawn in the river and its tributaries.
The silvery, hard-fighting, 2-to-6-pound fish could return by the thousands beginning in five years. They’ll hitch a ride around the Blewett Falls and Tillery dams, long-time barriers. The dams’ owner, Duke Energy Progress, has agreed to trap shad below the Blewett Falls Dam, put them in tanker trucks and drive them 20 miles upriver to Lake Tillery, where they’ll be released.
These pioneer shad would procreate new generations. The fry would ride the currents to the sea and grow to maturity in four years. They would spend summer and fall off the coast of Canada, dodge an array of ocean predators and swim back to the South Carolina coast to ascend their natal river in spring.
“I expect tens of thousands will be coming up the Uwharrie and spawning” once lake stocking starts, said biologist Mark Cantrell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The shad renaissance will likely create a new sport fishery on the Uwharrie. Because of their reputation as strong fighters, shad are often called a “poor man’s tarpon.”
Their return also will enrich the river’s ecology. Many of the shad, after spawning, will die. Their carcasses will provide nutrients from the Atlantic for other fish, turtles, eagles and osprey.
“There’s an abundance of energy being transferred upstream with those shad,” said Cantrell, who is based in Asheville.
Eliminating the dam will not only benefit shad but also native fish and mussels. A 2011 sampling of the backed-up waters 3.5 miles upstream of Lassiter Mill dam showed 40 individual fish of seven species. The oxygen-rich water 250 feet below the dam yielded a robust 388 fish of 23 species, including darters, shiners and redbreast sunfish.
Cantrell said many fish need to move up and down a river for various reasons – to find spawning habitat, to find food and to escape low water in times of drought or find refuge in tributaries in times of flood.
Complaints in 1805
A dam at Lassiter Mill, in Randolph County, may date to the 1780s, but no one knows the exact year.
In the early 19th century, grist-mill dams along the Uwharrie became so numerous that in 1805 residents complained about them in a petition to the legislature. The petitioners argued that the dams, by blocking the migration of shad, deprived them of an important food fish.
One of the petitioners was Stephen Grissom of Montgomery County. As it turns out, he is the great- great- great-grandfather of the dam’s owners today, Amy Grissom of Charlotte, and her sister, Ruth Ann Grissom of Atlanta.
Ruth Ann Grissom writes a column for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute about the environment of the Uwharrie region. The Grissoms manage the acreage adjacent to the dam for conservation values. To improve water quality and wildlife habitat, they have restored wetlands and riparian areas, reforested bottomland fields and converted upland fescue pastures to native warm-season grass.
Ruth Ann Grissom said she’ll miss the soothing sound of the water spilling over the dam. But, she said, the ecological benefits of its removal will more than offset the loss of the structure. “I feel like this is an opportunity to reconnect with a different part of our history,” she said.
The dam-busting coalition consisted of American Rivers (a national advocacy group), the Piedmont Conservation Council in Durham, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Planning for and demolition of the 200-foot-wide, rock-and-concrete dam cost an estimated $197,000, a mix of grants and in-kind services, said Jacob Leech of the Piedmont Conservation Council.
The voluntary demolition removed a safety hazard for paddlers as well as a liability for the property owner if the dam had failed.
Trucking in shad
Tearing down the dam coincided with plans by Duke Energy Progress, part of Duke Energy, to bring back shad to the Yadkin-Pee Dee River Basin. Duke agreed to do so as a condition of a renewed federal license for its Blewett Falls and Tillery hydroelectric dams.
The agreement to move shad upstream, called the Yadkin-Pee Dee River Diadromous Fish Passage Plan, was negotiated in 2007 with federal and state fish and wildlife agencies. Diadromous refers to fish that live in the ocean and spawn in fresh water (such as shad) as well as those that live in fresh water and spawn in the ocean (such as American eels).
Shad transport was to have begun this past spring. But contested issues and litigation have delayed a license. It could come later this year or in 2014.
Today, shad coming upstream in their annual migration can go no farther than the Blewett Falls Dam near Wadesboro. Anglers can catch the shad in the swift waters below the dam.
Here are Duke’s plans to get shad to historic spawning grounds in the Piedmont:
• First, in the fifth year after getting its license, in 2018 or 2019, Duke would capture and truck 17,000-20,000 shad a year for four years and release them into Lake Tillery and the Uwharrie River.
• From Lake Tillery, with the Lassiter Mill Dam gone, the fish will be able to swim up the Uwharrie almost to the Asheboro area, or into an additional 174 miles of tributary streams, for spawning. The upper end of Lake Tillery is blocked by the Falls Dam.
• After four years of releases into Lake Tillery, Duke would move shad to Blewett Falls Lake, the lake below Lake Tillery. Blewett Falls Lake, the Pee Dee River above it and tributaries would get 35,000-40,000 shad a year for four years. Once in the Pee Dee, the fish could either swim up the Rocky River to the west or up the Little River to the east to spawn.
Duke spokeswoman Erin Culbert said the capture and transport of shad, and population evaluation studies would cost upward of $300,000 a year.
• Finally, Duke would build a permanent fish passage at the 77-foot-high Blewett Falls Dam in 2025. The passage would cost about $8 million, Culbert said. Trucking of shad to Blewett Falls Lake would then cease. Trucking fish to Lake Tillery would continue for the life of the license, which could be 50 years, because no passage is mandated for the Tillery dam.
“The program is designed in a stepped approach to evaluate passing the fish upstream and the relative reproductive success and number of young produced each year,” Culbert said in an email.
Such passages can boost migratory fish numbers. The Columbia Canal Fish Passage in South Carolina began passing shad in 2007 up the Broad River.
Biologists counted 22 in the first two years. The number rose to 240 in 2012, declining to 183 this spring, in part due to high water that flooded the viewing area. The 183-fish count was extrapolated into a seasonal total of 1,730.
Biologist Dick Christie of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources said the increase could come from wild offspring hatched in the Broad or hatchery-raised fry stocked in the river by DNR, with adults returning from the ocean in either case.
Contact Jack Horan at firstname.lastname@example.org
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