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A River Swims With Life After a Dam Removal, But Now Faces New Threat

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It’s early morning and sun blazes down, flashing off the rapids of the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Virginia. 

Woodie Walker stands in waders, flicking a fly fishing line into the rain- swollen waters an hour south of Washington, D.C.   All around him, the silvery blue backs of scores of fish flash like blades from the gray-green current and then disappear.

It is the running of the shad, an annual springtime ritual in which the migratory fish surge up Chesapeake Bay tributaries to spawn.   Cormorants stand on the rocks, feasting on the profusion of fish, as vultures circle overhead.

Walker, a conservationist with an environmental group called the Friends of the Rappahannock, said he has seen an increase in several species of fish in recent years – a trend confirmed by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

 “The hickory shad is doing very well, and the American shad is doing better," Walker said.  "A lot of the reason is that 11 years ago, Friends of the Rappahannock and other partners, including the Army Corps of Engineers, removed a dam about 5 miles upstream from here. And that dam was obviously an impediment to the migratory fish -- the shad and the striped bass. Removing the dam has really improved access for fish, and as a result our fishery is getting better.”

The 2004 demolition of the Embrey Dam with 650 pounds of explosives freed up 71 additional miles of the Rappahannock River as breeding grounds not only for fish, but also American eels.   The Chesapeake Bay watershed still has more than 2,500 dams blocking its rivers, many dating to the 18th and 19th centuries.  The success in removing the Embrey Dam is an example of why more should come down.

“We are receiving a lot of positive feedback from our anglers that they are hooking into American shad in areas where that hasn’t happened before,” said John Odenkirk, biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said in a telephone interview.   “Not only that, but our electrofishing surveys – the methods we used to evaluate spring stock – show that 2013 and 2014 were two of the best years for American shad probably in 100 years (in the upper Rappahannock). …. And we’re also seeing  fish like white perch, yellow perch,  hickory shad, river herring, even gizzard shad. This whole community of fish is now able to access that water, and that rejuvenates the river.”

 Back on the river, two other anglers stood in the river near Walker, whipping their lines.  Soon all three were catching fish after fish, then releasing them.  

 “Oh baby!” Walker cheered.  “We gotta hook one.”

Walker holds up his catch: a hickory shad.

“He’s beautiful,” Walker said, examining the fish.  “He’s about 18 inches long.  ….and as you saw, when I hooked him, he jumped out of the water about 10 times.  Fishermen love that.”

The Rappahannock River is 195 miles long and stretches from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay.  It was the site of the childhood home of George Washington, tobacco plantations, and epic Civil War Battles.  The upper part of the historic waterway is improving because of the dam’s removal. But the waterway as a whole is still burdened with pollution, including from farm fertilizer runoff and the booming growth of suburban sprawl south of Washington.

A new threat to the river has also surfaced downriver from Fredericksburg. There, oil and gas companies have signed leases to drill and frack for 84,000 acres of land  – including not far from Washington’s birthplace.  Drilling leases have been signed all around Rappahannock River Natural Wildlife Refuge in Westmoreland County.

No drilling has started yet.

But Kathleen Harrigan, Executive Director of Friends of the Rappahannock, said her organization is concerned about runoff pollution from well pads and possible spills of fracking chemicals and wastewater.

“Fracking is an intensive, industrial operation,” Harrigan said.  “So it means disturbing a lot of rural communities – including their infrastructure and their water supply and the water that the area drains to -- with that industrial activity. That means everything from truck transportation, to additional traffic, and all that brings with it.”

A representative of the Virginia Oil and Gas Association said the river is not at risk, in part because the price of natural gas is so low right now, nobody is investing in new wells.

“Is there going to be any drilling over there?  God, not in the foreseeable future,” said Greg Kozera, past president of the Virginia Oil and Gas Association.  “Nobody inn their right minds, with natural gas prices where they are right now,  is going to drill any wells over there. Because we’ve got too much dam stuff in other areas that is a whole lot cheaper.”

 But markets change, just as rivers do.  And while the removal of the Embrey Dam opened up a new era of health for the Rappahanock, a future drilling boom could open up a stream of new troubles.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.