The noise from the staccato pounding of a massive jackhammer brings nearby conversation to a stop. Bit by bit, the machine — perched on the edge of the North Toe River just downstream from the town of Spruce Pine — cuts away at a decrepit dam whose removal will make the river safer for paddlers and open up miles of upstream habitat to fish and other aquatic life.
“The North Toe is a wonderful river,” remarked Cliff Vinson, the driving force behind this project, “and taking this useless dam out makes it better.”
Vinson is the coordinator for the Blue Ridge Resource Conservation and Development Council, the organization heading the $202,500 removal effort using funds from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, North Carolina Division of Water Resources. Workers should have the dam out by early August, the culmination of a process that started with a 2007 e-mail from Vinson’s predecessor to the Fish & Wildlife Service wondering about the possibility of removing the dam. The Asheville firm Altamont Environmental Services drafted the removal plan and Blue Ridge Grading and Trucking, Inc. is actually taking the structure out of the stream bed.
The dam was constructed for power generation in 1918, providing electricity to the town of Spruce Pine and the Sparks Kaolin plant. It was abandoned by the late 1940s or early 1950s, then partially dynamited in 1960 to clear silt which had accumulated upstream. What remains are massive slabs of concrete and scattered pieces of the dam’s inner workings.
“It’s not very often a dam comes out of a river,” said Anita Goetz, a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “The streams of the Toe River Valley are a natural treasure and something these communities should be proud of.”
For the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the dam removal is part of a broader look at the ability of aquatic animals, like fish, to move up and down streams. Often dams, poorly designed bridges and poorly installed culverts prevent aquatic animals from moving up or downstream to take advantage of quality habitat. In this case, removing the dam will open up access to 44 miles of river upstream of the dam site. State records show that two rare fish, the olive darter and sharphead darter were historically found above the dam, but today are only found below the dam, and it’s hoped the removal will allow these fish and several other species access to the upper portion of the river.
Additionally, removing the dam may help the endangered Appalachian elktoe mussel, which is also found downstream of the dam. The mussel may be able to colonize the area around the dam site, while dam removal may help the fish the mussel depends on to complete its life cycle. Like most native freshwater mussels in North Carolina, the elktoe spends part of its life attached to the gills and fins of a fish host. Removing the dam will open up additional habitat for these fish hosts, strengthening their populations which in turn should benefit the elktoe.
Taking out the decrepit dam removes a significant safety hazard for boaters and other river users. In addition to the clearly visible massive slabs of concrete, remnant pieces of the dam’s metal inner workings are scattered in the river. A breached center section creates a powerful hydraulic that claimed one recreational boater’s life in 1983. Boaters that portage around the structure must follow a path that’s close to an active railroad.
The dam removal comes as momentum builds for increased river recreation and conservation in the Toe River Valley, which begins in Avery and stretches across Mitchell and Yancey Counties. Local watershed group Toe River Valley Watch is working to create a paddling trail along the river, and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission named Spruce Pine and Bakersville Heritage Trout Water Cities as part of a program to encourage fishing-based tourism. Due largely to the presence of the endangered Appalachian elktoe mussel, the area has been a focal point for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which has awarded $239,259 in grants to local organizations over the past four years to help protect and improve stream quality in the upper Nolichucky River watershed.
— courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service