The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Wednesday, 05 June 2024 19:51

Little River dam-removal project flowing forward, specific timeline TBA

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peerys mill damPeery’s Mill Dam on the Little River is slated for removal by the Army Corps of Engineers for environmental and public safety reasons.  Elan Young/Hellbender Press

Army Corps still committed to Little River dam removal for ecological and safety reasons, but timeline uncertain 

TOWNSEND — The remainders of two low-head dams on the Little River in Blount County, Rockford Dam and Peery’s Mill Dam, are slated for removal by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) following the release in July 2023 of a Project Report and Environmental Assessment that investigated the lower 32 miles of the Little River.

The Corps confirmed this week that plans are moving ahead to remove the two dams. 

Peery’s Mill Dam was the site of 4 separate drownings in the last 15 years, giving it the notorious reputation as the deadliest dam in Tennessee in the past quarter century. Late last month, three women had to be rescued from the churning waters there, prompting questions from the community about the status of the Corps’ removal effort. 

Little River Watershed Association president Andrew Gunnoe says that watershed advocates are eager for the dam removal project to move forward because doing so would provide both ecological and community benefits. 

“The scientific case for the ecological benefits of dam removal is crystal clear,” he said. “The community also benefits from improved recreational access and the elimination of public safety risks.”

In previous reporting on the dam removal, Hellbender Press noted opposition to the project by Blount County Commission, which adopted a resolution calling for the preservation of the three Little River dams that were the subject of the USACE study. 

The Water Resources Development Act of 1996 authorizes USACE to carry out aquatic ecosystem restoration projects that improve environmental quality, are in the public interest, and are cost effective. And the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 requires the preparation of an environmental assessment (EA) to determine if a federal action will have significant detrimental impacts and to address unresolved environmental issues.

Lower Little River, Tennessee overview of study area


Peery’s Mill Dam

According to historic records, this dam was built around 1842 and first known as Neubern’s dam, often called Walland dam, and operated by Peery Brothers Mill after 1905. It served as a tourist attraction in the late 1980s until the mill burned down, leaving only the remaining dam.

This historic spot has continued to draw people as a popular local summertime hangout for families and hordes of teens looking for easy access to the Little River, despite known dangers. 

Summer 2018: Successful rescue operation performed by Blount County emergency responders at Peery’s Mill Dam.  Fig. 48, USACE EA


Rockford Dam

With three deaths in the past 15 years, this dam also ranks among Tennessee’s 5 deadliest low-head dams. It is the first obstacle preventing fish from getting upstream in the Little River. The study determined that removing Rockford Dam would not be cost effective in achieving natural resource benefits by itself. However, if it remained in place, removal of either of the dams further up on the river could also not accomplish cost-effective results. Only removing both, Rockford and Perry’s, dams can pass cost-effectiveness muster.

Townsend Dam

Townsend Dam is much smaller than the other 2 dams and less of a public safety risk. Its removal would improve fish passage merely for 2.5 miles upstream of the dam as species would encounter natural barriers to passage any higher in the headwaters. That would limit the overall environmental benefits. Feasibility of this dam’s removal could not be as thoroughly determined as for the other two dams. Adjacent landowners did not permit USACE to send scientists and engineers across their property to evaluate conditions, conduct substrate tests or take sediment samples.

Most important in terms of financing the Little River dam removal initiative, inclusion of Townsend Dam in the project would have exceeded current $10M federal funding limit for this type of stream restoration project by some $2M. However, no other federal criteria prevent the removal of this dam. So, future action, under new allocation packages for habitat restoration in coming years, or without federal funding, is not precluded. 

Current status

An official with the Corps responded to recent Hellbender Press inquiries with the following statement:

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the report in January 2024, recommending removing Peery’s Mill Dam and Rockford Dam. Since then, the project has been in the process of beginning implementation.

“However, the process is not complete, nor do we know the outcome yet regarding funding and a potential schedule. This is all the information we have at this time and will seek opportunities to update the public and our partners as the process moves forward. USACE strongly recommends that recreators practice proactive water safety tips, such as wearing a life jacket and knowing their swimming abilities.” 

The USACE said that the recommended milestone timeline in the report are goals to keep the process moving forward. The beginning implementation includes a project partnership agreement between the government and a non-federal sponsor for project cost-sharing.

Aside from the significant safety concerns from dangerous currents, the age of these dams and lack of repairs and upkeep means they also pose a risk for washing out in severe floods. Even still, the risks to human safety is a secondary objective of the project, while the primary is environmental restoration.

The report states that the ecological objective of the dam removal effort is to “provide an improved means for aquatic species passage, improved ecosystem health and function, and reconnecting disjointed biomes that threatened and endangered species need to sustain their populations.”

Coincidentally, an unrelated Fish and Wildlife Service dam removal project on another Little River, this one in the Clinch River watershed in Southwest Virginia, is expected to have similar restorative properties.

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Last modified on Thursday, 27 June 2024 18:21