Partnerships run deep: Alabama dam removal improves water quality
January 21, 2020

By Eric Spadgenske, state coordinator, Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program July 12, 2019

Removing a nearly 100-year-old, 100-foot-long concrete and steel structure from the main channel of one of Alabama’s major river basins is no small undertaking. For any single agency, it would be nearly impossible. The solution may sound cliché, but in Alabama partnerships carry the day.

Four years, four months, and 15 days – that is how long it took from fledgling thought to completion. Fortunately, the partnership had already been established. The Alabama Rivers and Streams Network (ARSN) is a multi-stakeholder group committed to working together to restore and maintain clean, healthy water supplies. The ARSN framework and the commitment of the stakeholders provided the confidence necessary to embark down the long, and sometimes winding, road of dam removal.

The Howle and Turner Dam is a significant part of our history as Alabamians and Americans. A center of commerce for over a half century, the grist mill and cotton gin powered by the Tallapoosa River were a centerpiece of rural life in early 1900s east Alabama. William Thomas Howle and his son-in-law Irvin Lee Turner were the first business partners of the namesake complex which included everything from a barber shop to hardware. Many area residents still fondly remember walking up the old river road to the general store to have corn ground or to obtain the few goods they didn’t produce on the farm themselves.

The cotton gin and grist mill were largely replaced by other technologies and the purpose shifted over the years to produce poultry feed and, finally to a brief period of hydroelectric power generation in the 1980s. When power generation ceased in the late 1990s, the dam became obsolete and its negative impacts quickly came into focus.

By harnessing the power of the Tallapoosa, the dam also changed the character of the river. The turbulent, oxygen-rich waters flowing over gravel and bedrock, and among rafts of rooted vegetation, had been replaced by the deep, still pool characteristics of a lake. Sunlight was no longer able to penetrate through the murky depths and sediments settled behind the dam had changed the chemistry of the water. Habitats for mussels and other aquatic life were buried under several feet of water and mud. The dam created an obvious barrier to movement of fish and other aquatic organisms isolating them from related population segments and limiting opportunities to reproduce. Many species, including the federally protected finelined pocketbook mussel and the at-risk Tallapoosa orb mussel, rely on clean, free-flowing water over stable gravel. People in canoes and kayaks also avoided this segment of the river for fear of having to navigate a treacherous portage by trespassing on private land, or worse, taking their chances with the deadly hydraulics that swirl around dams.

The justification for restoring flows to this section of the Tallapoosa River was clear and the members of ARSN were quickly on board. The checklist was lengthy, including negotiations with three private landowners; samplings of sediments, fish, mussels, and crayfish; site visits with engineers; documentation of the historical significance of the site; permitting and coordination with multiple agencies; and scheduling of resources and equipment.

Each member of ARSN brought a piece to the partnership with experience and expertise needed to handle nearly all of the necessary components. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program coordinated the pre-restoration planning, and worked with the Service’s Fisheries and Aquatic Conservation Aquatic Habitat Restoration Team to carry out the demolition and restoration of the river channel.

After more than four years of planning, it took less than five days for the equipment operators to chip away and remove a barrier that had stood for nearly 100 years. Before the dam was completely removed from the river, fish of at least four species could be seen straining against the flow in salmon-like runs over the rubble and past the century-old barrier to migration.

Without the support of the partnership, the Howle and Turner Dam could have stood for another century before catastrophic failure brought it down. The benefits to the ecosystem and the local community will be measured over time, and new challenges are always on the horizon, but we know that we can move forward with confidence because our partnerships run deep.