Dam removals help restore natural paths of state’s many waterways
Directly below the Route 130 bridge that spans Turtle Creek in Trafford is a dangerous temptation.
Cool shade and a roaring man-made waterfall lure thrill-seekers, who ignore a 10-foot-tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and swing out over the creek on a thin rope, plunging into a shallow pool just downstream of the old Westinghouse Dam.
“There’s no way to keep people out. They keep cutting the fence,” said Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy, associate director of river restoration for nonprofit American Rivers. “Dams are a dangerous place to play. Water that goes over the dam creates a current that can pull you under. Even experienced swimmers could drown in those conditions.”
The danger in Trafford soon will be gone. Engineers are devising plans to remove the 8-foot-tall, 50-foot-wide dam and restore the section of Turtle Creek to its natural babbling flow. It is one of a couple dozen outdated, useless dams slated that will be removed from state waterways this year.
Pennsylvania leads the nation in dam removals. According to American Rivers, a national group specializing in river restoration that helps facilitate dam removal, the state removed 143 dams in the past decade, accounting for 19 percent of removals nationwide. American Rivers opened a field office in Edgewood six months ago to keep up with demand.
“Year after year, Pennsylvania is consistently ahead of everyone else in the number of dams removed,” said Jack Kraeuter, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s chief of environmental and geological services for the Division of Dam Safety in Harrisburg.
There are several reasons, he said.
For one thing, Pennsylvania simply has a lot of dams: at least 3,000, and possibly as many as 7,000 if every tiny dam is accounted for.
“Back in the colonial days, that’s how you got your power — saw mills, grist mills — and how you got your water supply,” said Vince Humenay, a DEP biologist. “Back then they were damming streams to the point where it was just one pond after another.”
The state has also been successful at collecting and supplying money for dam removal projects.
Officials from the state and American Rivers are waiting to hear about an application for almost $15 million to pay for the removal of a dozen dams using federal stimulus money for “shovel-ready” projects. Since 2003, the state has given American Rivers $1.6 million in taxpayer-financed Growing Greener grants, which pay for environmental projects. American Rivers also gets grants from philanthropic organizations, including the Laurel, Mellon and Colcom foundations.
“If we have a willing owner who has a dam they don’t use anymore and they don’t want the liability, and we tell them we have the funding to remove it and all we need is your permission, they go for it,” Kraeuter said.
Officials say teamwork among the DEP, American Rivers and the state Fish and Boat Commission results in quick investigating and then planning, permitting and financing for dam removals.
Removing dams has a purpose beyond safety.
Dams alter the natural flow of rivers, turning clear, rapidly moving streams into stagnant ponds where mosquitoes breed. They bury mussels and other bottom-dwellers in sediment. Trapped sediment doesn’t continue downstream, starving sandy beaches. High dam walls prevent trout and other fish from migrating upstream to spawn.
A recent Fish and Boat Commission survey showed the number of fish tripled upstream from where Bear Run Dam was removed last year in Centre County.
A dam removal can originate several ways.
In the case of Westinghouse Dam, PennDOT is paying about $200,00 to remove the 100-year-old dam and restore 2,500 feet of Turtle Creek. It is required to remediate the creek to make up for impacting another section with the widening of Route 22.
“I think it’s great that they’re removing it,” said Jennifer Salany, 31, who lives a few hundred feet from the dam and has two young daughters. “It’s dangerous for children, so they should get rid of it.”
The Porter’s Cove Dam in Harmony has a different story. Wild Waterways Conservancy, a private nonprofit, bought the dam on Connoquenessing Creek and about two acres surrounding it from the borough for $1. It is scheduled to be breeched July 1, with the rest of removal happening the following week. Afterward, the conservancy will install a canoe and kayak launch.
Complaints are rare, Humenay said.
“I’ve probably completed about 100 projects, and we’ve had to do public meetings on less than 10,” he said. “I haven’t had one in two years. Most people are OK with this.”
No trace remains of the dam removed two years ago in Butler County’s Alameda Park. Instead, Sullivan’s Run trickles unimpeded through the park past a grassy field that occasionally becomes a natural wetland.
“It turned out great. I mean, the dam didn’t hold water since 1970, anyway,” said Gary Pinkerton, director of the parks. “The whole idea was to return the stream back to its natural state, and that’s what we accomplished.”
Want to remove a dam?
American Rivers can help remove unwanted dams. For information, call Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy at 412-727-6130.