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The Need to Restore Fish Passage in Bishopville - October 5, 2010

 

 

Not many people notice the dam at the bridge on Route 367 in Bishopville. Bunting Branch is on one side of the dam and the St. Martins River on the other, well, actually it’s the Bishopville Prong of the St. Martins River. It doesn’t become the St Martins River until it meets up with Shingle Landing Prong a couple of miles downstream. 

 

The headwaters of these streams start in the Great Cypress Swamp in Delaware which is also the headwaters of the Pocomoke River in Maryland and Indian River, Delaware. The area has a rich history of farming the low-lying, swampy soils. Logging and ditch digging were major activities that cleared the land and lowered the water table so the land could be worked. 

 

A small dam was installed at Bishopville shortly after the Civil War, most likely to power mills for timber and grain, and a dam has been there ever since.  These types of dams were common then and provided a valuable source of hydropower; however, as new, more efficient sources of power were developed, these small dams became less important to the economy of the area. Now, they are picturesque signposts to a time gone by, but also signposts indicating potential trouble.   

 

In recent decades, scientists and resource managers have developed a better understanding of the vital role of naturally functioning, free-flowing river ecosystems and have made great strides in balancing power needs and river ecosystems. The demise of stocks of anadromous fish, fish that live in the ocean but need freshwater streams to lay their eggs, highlighted the need for clean rivers and streams that had no blockages.

 

 In 1987, the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement was signed by states within the watershed, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. This landmark agreement included commitments by each state, “to provide for fish passage at dams, and remove stream blockages wherever necessary to restore passage for migratory fish.”

 

Within the coastal bays, the 2002 Watershed Restoration Action Strategy cited the need for restoring fish passage in the St Martin River, which has a major fish blockage.   

 

With the need for free flowing streams identified, and the blockage that needed removal identified, only money to implement the plan was needed. In the case of the Bishopville dam, a design for restoration was developed – in fact, it was a particularly innovative design – that would restore the flow of the river, yet keep a pond on the site of the old pond; and it would remove or cap most of the old sediment that had accumulated over the years and contributed to the degraded water quality downstream. The St. Martins is considered to be the most polluted water body in the Coastal Bays.  The project to remove the blockage was to be funded by the State Highway Administration, but unfortunately, funding was cut for the project when state budget cuts were implemented in the wake of the “bursting of the housing bubble.” as they say in economic circles.

 

Through persistence in seeking funds, a total of $1.1 million has been secured to complete the project. The Maryland Coastal Bays Program, Worcester County, and the Department of Natural Resources worked together to find the funds to complete the project. Funding will be provided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Maryland Trust Fund, National Ocean and Aeronautical Administration, and the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 

 

“Although many details still need to be worked, we are very happy to see that the funding is in place to see the project through,” reports Dave Wilson, Executive Director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.  

 

One of the main goals of the project, to allow fish passage, will be achieved by replacing the existing dam with a nature-like fishway. Almost seven miles of stream will be opened to the anadromous fish such as alewife and blueback herring. The passageway will be adjoining the current pool, which will remain as an adjoining pond at the request of local residents.  The pond will be part of a sand seepage wetland that will be created alongside the fishway which will consist of a series of riffles and pools that are specifically designed to prevent mass movement of sediments downstream, yet allow fish to move upstream. The use of nature-like fishways as a viable fish passage alternative is accepted around the world. Many examples of these nature-mimicking structures now exist in countries throughout Europe, as well as Australia, Canada and Japan. More recently they have been gaining acceptance in the United States. Successful projects have demonstrated that these fishways can provide suitable fish passage, as well as additional aquatic habitat, by reestablishing the stream corridor.  This corridor will also be beneficial for reptiles and amphibians to gain passage to upstream areas.  Scores of dead turtles are seen every year on the road to Bishopville as turtles try to cross to gain access to areas above the dam.  Because of the dam, turtles moving upstream must cross a busy roadway. Dam removal will be a benefit to a diversity of species. Sometimes, change is good.

 

 

For more information regarding the project, please contact Dr. Roman Jesien, Science Coordinator, Maryland Coastal Bays Program, 410-213-2297.

 

Dr. Roman Jesien is the Science Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.



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