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Big ‘Ecological Impact’ to Follow Removal of Warren County Dam

Multimillion-dollar project to clear away Columbia Lake Dam gears up. Will shad and other species come back to restored habitat?

Columbia Lake Dam
Credit: NJDEP
Columbia Lake Dam

A few week ago, hundreds of shad were spotted swimming in a small pool at the bottom of a 109-year-old hydropower dam on the Paulins Kill, the third largest tributary of the Delaware River.

“Come back next year,’’ yelled Barbara Brummer, New Jersey state director of the Nature Conservancy — an organization engaged in an $8 million project to remove the dam — as she inspected the site near the Delaware Water Gap yesterday.

By then, the project to dismantle the Columbia Lake Dam may be completed, restoring an important habitat not only for shad, but also American eel and blueback herring. “The ecological impact to this river cannot be overstated,’ she said.

There are more than 14,000 dams in the Northeast, but the 330-foot long, 18-foot high dam in Knowlton Township, Warren County was ranked in the top 5 percent of projects of ecological importance for restoring fish habitat, according to the Nature Conservancy.

Columbia Lake Aerial Sequence by Matt Hencheck

“This one lit up,’’ said Brummer, who has been steering the project through federal, state, and local regulatory mazes for the past four years.

Historical spawning grounds for shad

American shad
Credit: USFWS
A school of young American shad

Beyond restoring historical spawning grounds for shad and other species, the removal of the dam will improve water quality in the Paulins Kill, and the Delaware River, a quarter of a mile away. The Delaware supplies drinking water for 17 million people in four states.

And that is not all. Once completed, the removal of the dam will open up a 10-mile stretch of the river through northwestern New Jersey for kayakers and canoeists, said Larry Herrighty, director of DEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife.

The project also signifies a larger success story — the improving water quality of the Delaware River, where the shad fishery has had a resurgence, allowing the fish to return to tributaries like the Paulins Kill.

“I think they will be up here next year,’’ predicted Dave Bean, chief of the Office of Natural Resource Damages at DEP. Like several others who were at the dam yesterday for the launch of the removal project, he called the project one of the happiest moments of his career.

Removing the dam will improve water quality by raising the temperature of the river as well as improving dissolved oxygen levels, important to fish habitat.

Improving water quality

Shad spend much of their life in the ocean and estuaries but need access to freshwater for spawning. With improving water quality, the shad have moved further up the river, but dams, paper mills and other obsolete facilities have hindered access to their spawning habitat.

Ironically, other species, like the American eel, follow the reverse course, spawning in the ocean but spending much of their life in rivers and their tributaries.

The dam provided electricity — enough to power about 160 homes until a couple of year ago. At one time, when electricity use was much less in demand, it provided power to as far away as Philadelphia, Brummer said.

While its benefits as a hydropower plant have declined, the concept of removing the dam posed its challenges. “Taking a hydropower dam is not for the faint of heart,’’ said Brummer. To push the project along, her organization had to buy the hydropower license from the current owner, Great Bear, for $200,000, which it then retired.

The Nature Conservancy raised $1.4 million for the project, but a $5 million infusion from the state’s Natural Resource Damage fund supplied the bulk of funding. The fund taps polluters who harm natural resources to pay to restore habitat, water supplies and wetlands.

‘Bang for the buck’

In the past, lawmakers and governors have tapped the fund to plug holes in the state budget — as was done again this year by the Murphy administration. It diverted much of the money from a $225 million pollution settlement with Exxon/Mobil to the general fund.

DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe praised this project, saying the dam removal will provide “one of the most wonderful and profitable bangs for the buck.’’

Other funds for the project came from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Corporate Wetlands Restoration program and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

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