Point of View

Milburnie Dam: An obstacle to safety and nature

November 28, 2012 

There has been much discussion and debate in recent years over whether Raleigh’s Milburnie Dam should be removed. The short answer is yes, and the time has come to make that happen. As American Rivers’ Lynnette Batt has said, “There’s no faster or more effective way of bringing life back to rivers than removing a dam.”

The Milburnie Dam is located on the Neuse River, just east of Raleigh and 15 miles south of Falls Lake. Once used to generate hydroelectric power, the privately owned dam is now serving no purpose. The stagnant river above it exists in an unnatural manmade state offering little to no benefit to the rest of the aquatic community. It is time to bring life back to this river for the benefit of the environment, for the benefit of those who recreate along the river and to eliminate a significant public safety hazard that has been called “a killer” by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Fisheries biologist and dam expert Mike Wicker.

Many people wrongly believe that the waters below the dam are an appropriate place to swim. In fact, the conditions there are deceptively dangerous and have resulted in 11 confirmed drowning deaths in the past 83 years, with others likely going unreported.

The most recent were the deaths of two children in July of this year and two young men in 2008.

Swimming in rivers always presents risks, but the waters below this type of low head dam are especially dangerous. According to Batt, these structures are called “drowning machines” because they can create an extremely dangerous condition at the base of the dam called a “hydraulic.” When the water goes up and down, it can pull a swimmer or a boater under, making it difficult to out swim the deadly current.

My firm, Restoration Systems, can help put an end to such needless tragedies by removing the dam.

Yes, we are a business. But we’re in the business of improving the environment. We take rivers, streams and wetlands that have been degraded in one way or another by past development and restore them to their natural state. In turn, we sell credits from these projects to offset new development in the same watershed, which allows us to fund these beneficial environmental activities. All of the credits are approved by the relevant state and federal regulatory agencies before they can be used.

Private money, not public, will go toward the removal of the Milburnie Dam. It is privately owned, and we are working in partnership with the owners. We will pay for the removal of the dam and are confident in the success of this project.

That success can be measured in several ways. From an ecological standpoint, the Neuse River is dead behind the dam. Eight miles of river have been turned into a long, narrow lake. When the dam is removed, we expect to see a whole new aquatic community emerge. A community that is closer to what nature intended.

We expect to see a much more healthy fish population than what is there now. The American shad and striped bass are anadromous fish – which means they actually live in saltwater and migrate up the river to what should be their natural spawning habitat. They are both recreationally and commercially important to North Carolina.

According to Wicker, the place these fish most effectively reproduce would be above the Milburnie dam, below Falls Lake. But, the dam stops them from getting to their historic spawning habitat.

We also expect to see a more useful environment for the public. When the Neuse is allowed to flow freely again, more people will be able to safely and easily kayak and canoe without having to portage around the dam.

For all of these reasons, this is a dam that must be removed. It is the right thing to do, and we invite people to learn more about and become engaged in this project.

George Howard of Raleigh is co-founder and president of Restoration Systems. More information can be found at MilburnieDam.com. A public information workshop will be held on Dec. 6 from 6-8 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Raleigh North, 2805 Highwoods Blvd., Raleigh.

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