The Maury River appears tranquil as its glides past Lexington, VA. But the debate over its future has been anything but smooth.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is working with the city to tear down a hole-ridden dam that critics say poses a drowning hazard and blocks fish and mussel movements in the Chesapeake Bay tributary.
But opponents are mounting a last-ditch effort to preserve the stone and mortar structure. They argue that the century-old dam’s historic value outweighs the environmental benefits of its removal. The public would also lose a popular swimming attraction, they contend, if the 1.2-mile-long flat pond behind the dam reverts to a free-flowing stream.
Removing fish barriers has been one of the longtime goals of the Chesapeake Bay restoration. Whether dismantling dams or installing passages, officials are striving to reopen waters to fish migration and to create more habitat for important species. As of 2017, authorities across the region had already opened 1,236 additional miles, with just less than half of that amount in Virginia.
But Bay scientists caution against declaring victory just yet. Much of the mileage gain came through projects considered “low-hanging fruit,” they said.
If the Lexington dam is removed, fish would still face another barrier 7.5 miles downstream at a second dam, which blocks their path to the James River and Chesapeake beyond. But it would open a network of adjoining waterways, connecting 56 miles of fish habitat downstream of the dam to 1,084 miles on the upstream portion, said Lisa Moss, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.
Supporters say that removing the dam also will improve water quality and the diversity of fish and insects in the aquatic food chain immediately upstream of the structure. The velocity of river flows will increase, pumping more oxygen into the water and reshaping the bottom to be more hospitable to the spawning and feeding habits of the creatures that normally live in rivers.
There are no farther dams upstream from that part of the river, which lies on a bend known as Jordan’s Point.
Opponents say the increase in uninterrupted steam miles for fish isn’t significant enough to justify destroying the dam, though.
“The more I looked at Jordan’s Point, the more I realized there isn’t going to be a lot of connectivity here,” said Wayne Dyok, executive director of American Dams.
The group is considering a lawsuit challenging the DGIF’s environmental assessment. The document, Dyok said, improperly credits the project with creating 1,140 miles of connected habitat. But 1,084 of those miles are already available to fish upstream of the dam, so the state should only credit itself with adding 56 miles, he said.
Moss defended the calculation, saying it came directly from the Chesapeake Bay Fish Passage Prioritization Tool, the protocol endorsed by the Chesapeake Bay Program.
In November, Sherry White, the USFWS assistant director for fish and aquatic conservation in the agency’s Northeast region, ruled that the project would create “no significant impact” to the human or natural environment. The determination removed one of the last major regulatory hurdles facing the project.
Calls to remove the Maury River dam began in 2006, when a deceptively strong current washed a 16-year-old boy over the spillway. He drowned, unable to escape the recirculating vortex at its base.
A 2007 engineering report financed by the city called the structure “unsafe” and recommended its removal, warning it could suffer a “partial failure” during a “significant high water event.” In December 2017, the state Department of
Conservation and Recreation ordered the city to repair or remove the dam, citing its continued decay.
The low-head dam was constructed some time before 1900 — no one is sure exactly when — to power a nearby mill. At the time, Jordan’s Point was awash in heavy industry, serving as one of Lexington’s main economic engines.
But by World War II, the mills had closed, and the dam had fallen out of use. The modern engineering report found numerous leaks as well as a crack spanning its entire 10-foot height on the upstream side of the structure.
The report estimated that rehabilitating the 10-foot-high, 185-foot-long structure would cost up to $3 million. In the city of 7,000 residents, that total equates to an entire year’s worth of spending on capital improvements, such as bridge repairs, street paving and other infrastructure upgrades.
“We don’t have that kind of money to fix up a dam that doesn’t really have a purpose other than increasing some recreational opportunities,” City Manager Noah Simon said. “If you have somebody that’s giving you a solution to a problem you can’t afford, why not consider it?”
That’s what happened, he said, when the USFW and the Virginia Wildlife Grant Program stepped in to fund the $260,000 demolition. Work is set to begin in early 2019, whenever the current slackens in the rain-swollen river.
The impacts of the removal will ripple far beyond the project’s footprint, said Louise Finger, a stream restoration biologist with the DGIF.
The normal high-water level will plummet as much as 7 feet just upstream of the dam site, according to the DGIF.
As officials gathered public comments on the project, one of the most frequent concerns they heard was that the dam’s absence would destroy a popular swimming hole. But the river can still be used for recreation afterward, Finger said, adding that the moving water would be good for kayaking and standup paddleboarding. Another potential benefit: Paddlers will no longer have to portage around the dam.
“I think having it be a beautiful river in its natural state will still be an asset to the city,” Finger said. “It’ll just be different.”
The project includes nods toward historical preservation. Remnants of the structure and a handful of railroad piers will be left in place to give future visitors a sense of what once stood there. The project also will strive to keep water flowing down the dam’s millrace, the shallow canal that diverted water from the main river channel to power the mill, Finger said.
The Virginia Military Institute, which calls Lexington home, lobbied the city to keep the dam to preserve the impoundment. Its depth allowed cadets to practice leaping into the water from a zipline.
“These activities require sufficient depth, and we are expecting that depth won’t be available in the areas we do the training now when the dam is removed,” said Col. Stewart MacInnis, a VMI spokesman.
The Lexington City Council reaffirmed its commitment in October to remove the dam, all but closing the door on legislative efforts to save the structure. American Dams representatives said that they can repair the dam for far less than the city’s consultant estimated. Still, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation said it would require anyone who takes ownership of the dam to first obtain a $3 million bond as financial assurance.
Dyok said his small group doesn’t have that kind of money, and he questions whether the DCR has the authority to impose such a requirement. In the meantime, he hopes his group’s own stability analysis can be completed before the wrecking crew arrives.