The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Tuesday, 30 May 2023 12:02

Will Little River run wild and free again?

Written by Andrew Gunnoe and Élan Young

PeerysMillPeery’s Mill Dam on the Little River could be dismantled following a federal survey of dams along the river. Andrew Gunnoe/Hellbender Press

Army Corps of Engineers studies Little River for potential dam removal

TOWNSEND — In February the Army Corps of Engineers announced a study to evaluate potential effects of proposed removal or modification of three dams on the Little River. These dams include the Townsend Dam, Peery’s Mill, and Rockford. The announcement sparked a public furor in Blount County over potential impact that dam removal might have on the Little River and adjoining communities. 

The results of the Army Corps’ study are not expected until June or July. Despite not knowing the study’s findings — which may include recommendations of full or partial removal of individual dams, or no action at all — the Blount County Commission unanimously passed a resolution in April calling for the preservation of all three dams. The resolution was sponsored by 14 of the 21 commissioners (it takes 11 votes to pass a resolution). 

Once seen as radical, dam removal is now a well-established practice across the United States. The dams targeted for removal are typically obsolete and no longer serve the purpose for which they were originally constructed. In 2022 alone, 65 dams were removed across the country, reconnecting over 430 upstream river miles across 20 states. While some of these dams are large, the vast majority are classified as low-head dams, similar in size to the three dams along the Little River.

The resolution cited reasons for preserving the dams. One pointed to the historical significance of the dams, which is understandable in a place with a rich history as Blount County. Dam removal doesn’t have to be at odds with preserving history. For example, the old hydroelectric dam that produced power for the Walland Power Plant, was naturally breached decades ago. The structure now remains on the National Register of Historic Places with a plaque helping tell the story of part of Blount County’s history and the water flows freely downstream now. There are similar examples across the county, where dam removal has taken place along with historical recognition.  

While the historical significance of the dams cannot be denied, the resolution goes on to list several dubious environmental concerns lacking any evidence or research to back up the claims. The resolution states removing these structures “could have significant, adverse impact on the health and safety of the public drinking water source.” It also claims “new aquatic ecosystems that have been established could be destroyed … as the potential of toxic materials being released into the river could negatively impact aquatic life and wildlife on the river.”  

A ‘universal good’

The impact of dam removal on water quality has been studied extensively over the past several decades. The general consensus is that dam removal improves, not impairs, overall water quality. And there are now management models in place to mitigate the short-term impact of increased sediment load following the removal of a dam. Director and Senior Conservation Biologist Bo Baxter of Conservation Fisheries, Inc., said that dam removal is beneficial for river health. 

“It’s considered an almost universal good for the health of a river system,” he said. “Removing barriers restores connections between populations of fishes, restores natural sediment transport in the stream, removes artificially impounded areas, and returns the stream to a more natural state.” He added that dam removal would benefit the rich biodiversity of the river, especially of sensitive species unique only to this local ecosystem. “The large number of at-risk species found in Little River makes these dam removals even more important,” he said.  

Julie Konkel, watershed coordinator for Blount County Soil Conservation District, notes the major threat to water quality on the Little River is not dam removal, but rather sediment runoff from eroded soil resulting from poorly managed lands and stormwater runoff, which could be effectively addressed through conservation management practices.

She said due to the age and failing structural integrity of many of the Little River dams, it is possible one could break of its own accord, posing serious risk to human and environmental health.

“While dams can provide valuable services, once the functional lifespan of a dam has expired, the economic and societal value of the dam diminishes and is outweighed by the risks of allowing an unmanaged dam to remain,” she said. “Decades of research, both global and regional, show that non-functioning and unmanaged dams pose risks to environmental health, water quality, and public health.”

Drowning machines

The issue of public health is one of the primary rationales for removing the dams on the Little River. Since the mid-1990s half a dozen people have drowned in low-head dams along the Little River. At Peery’s Mill in Walland, a girl drowned in 2019, and another nearly drowned in 2022. Because of the powerful currents circulating below the dams, they are often called "drowning machines" by safety experts. By removing the low-head dams along the Little River, we could remove a danger resulting in tragedy for families. 

Another issue cited in the resolution comes closest to mirroring a conversation among locals, without mentioning commercialization directly, stating instead, “... the removal or modification of these historical dams would diversify and increase human water traffic on the river thereby significantly impacting their wishes to remain the peaceful side of the Smokies.”

While it’s true we can look at dams in terms of place and history, the main reason for opposing their removal, according to the commenters in the Facebook forum Townsendites37882 and attendees at a stakeholder listening session in Townsend, is indeed the threat of overcommercialization, especially by the tubing industry. 

With three dams removed along the Little River, citizens are worried the tubing operations would explode, especially in Townsend and Walland, bringing less peace to a town whose identity as the Peaceful Side of the Smokies hangs in the balance. The over-commercialization fear of a community identifying itself in polar opposition to Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg is understandable, especially as development becomes one of the most heated topics among citizens.  

The removal of these dams does not have to mean more commercialization from tubing companies in Townsend. Instead of issuing a blanket resolution aimed at preventing dam removal, the Blount County Commission could cooperate with other local bodies to limit the tubing industry. Protecting the Little River and preserving Townsend’s identity as the Peaceful Side of the Smokies should not be seen as conflicting goals. In fact, they go hand-in-hand.

The resolution goes on to claim that “the vast majority of citizens in District 8 … are opposed to the removal or modification of the dams.” There is no way to know for sure what the vast majority of citizens think about this issue, but there are a lot of locals who support the Army Corps study. 

Jennifer Webster, a river enthusiast and a board member of Little River Watershed Association is a Walland resident who wants to see what the Army Corps study recommends. She believes that if the Army Corps recommends dam removal, with effort, everyone can have what they want. “We can let the river flow freely again, protect the history of the mills, make river recreation safer, and prevent over-commercialization,” she said. “These things are all possible at the same time. We don’t have to choose between them, but it is going to take hard work and time. It is going to take reaching out to other rural communities that have found solutions and some creative problem-solving by Blount County citizens and leaders.”

Just as Blount County is experiencing pressure to develop at the cost of preserving the rural character of the county, many in Townsend and Walland seek to protect the cultural identity as the Peaceful Side of the Smokies. On this issue we could not agree more. Citizens who celebrate the quieter pace of life in these areas have good sense to be concerned about actions that would increase commercialization on the Little River. However, citizens also have a right to know the full story — that removal of the dams does not have to lead to more human impact, and could in fact improve the health and biodiversity of one of the most precious waterways in our region. 

Shared values

Perhaps, if there is one benefit to the controversy surrounding the dams, it is that protecting the Little River is a central, shared value among Blount Countians — as demonstrated by impassioned opinions shared on social media, in town meetings, and before the Blount County Commission.

Such shared values could actually make it easier for local officials to cooperatively develop sound policies that prevent over-commercialization and simultaneously address impacts from agriculture and development.

In fact, Blount County government recently came together over hiring an engineering firm to lead a comprehensive land use and transportation plan to help guide issues around development and sustainable growth.

Why not let the Army Corps of Engineers study, which doesn’t cost Blount County taxpayers anything, to provide similar knowledge and expertise about the true impacts from low-head dams? 

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