The Return of the American Shad to the Musconetcong River

PHOTO/New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife biologist Pat Hamilton holds a shad near the Warren Glen Dam

After a 250+ year absence, American shad have returned to the Musconetcong River in Hunterdon and Warren counties. This milestone in the ecological recovery of the river is the result of the removal of dams on the lower Musconetcong several years ago, followed by the removal of the Hughesville Dam in Warren County last year.

Removing the dams opened nearly six miles of the Musconetcong to migratory fish, such as American shad, that spend much of their lives in the ocean but return to rivers and their tributaries to spawn. The shad’s return is a good sign of the overall ecological health and diversity of the river.

Princeton Hydro was proud to partner with the Musconetcong Watershed Association and so many other incredible organizations who came together on the Hughesville Dam Removal project. To date, Princeton Hydro has investigated, designed and permitted five dam removals on the Musconetcong.

The next Musconetcong dam targeted for removal is the 32-foot high Warren Glen Dam, less than a mile farther upstream. It is the largest dam in the river; by comparison, the Hughesville Dam was 15-feet tall.

Princeton Hydro President Geoff Goll, P.E. published this commentary piece titled, “The Return of the American Shad to the Musconetcong River:”

Update (June 15, 2017)NJDEP issued press release on the finding of American shad on the Musky. Bob Shin, NJDEP Commissioner, stated, “[t]he return of shad, a benchmark species indicative of the overall ecological health and diversity of a waterway, is an exciting milestone…. This achievement is the direct result of an ongoing partnership among state and federal agencies, nonprofit groups, and dam owners – all committed to making this beautiful waterway free-flowing again.

On June 7, 2017, Princeton Hydro celebrated along with the Musconetcong Watershed Association (and an excellent story of the MWA, human history of the river, and the efforts to preserve the history and ecology can be found here) and other project partners, the discovery of American shad on the Musconetcong River in NJ, over 250 years after they were blocked from this major tributary of the Delaware River – On September 8, 2016, then Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, held a press conference to celebrate the initial breach of the Hughesville Dam on the Musconetcong River (time lapse of removal is here). The press conference was held as the Department of the Interior via of the US Fish and Wildlife Service provided the funding to remove this obsolete structure through their Hurricane Sandy Recovery funding and the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration program. In addition to the Honorable Sally Jewell, NJDEP Commissioner Bob Martin, and US Army Corp of Engineers, Philadelphia District Commander Lt. Colonel Michael Bliss, were also on hand to speak about the importance of the Hughesville Dam removal and dam removal in general. To have such dignitaries at the highest levels of our Federal and State government speak at a project our firm designed was truly an honor and privilege. It was a great day to celebrate the next obsolete dam on the Musconetcong River to fall to the progress of river restoration. However, this would pale in comparison to the news we received on Wednesday, June 7, 2017, when the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife confirmed the presence of the American shad (Alosa sapidissima) above the Hughesville Dam!

Ms. Patricia Hamilton, Fisheries Biologist of NJ Fish And Wildlife, reported that they “spotted small schools of American Shad (at most 6 at a time) and captured 4 several hundred yards downstream of the Warren Glen Dam”, five miles from the confluence of the Delaware River. This is the first documentation of American shad on this river in over 250 years! So, what is the big deal you may ask.

The American shad is the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern United States’ salmon; it is actually a clupeid, a forage type fish closely related to herrings and sardines. Like herrings and sardines, they are a very oily fish, high in omega-3 fats, and low in contamination. It is also a fairly large clupeid, reaching three to eight pounds as adults. Like the salmon, American shad are anadromous, meaning they live the major part of their lives in the ocean and spawn up the coasts’ rivers. The American shad is not a spectacularly looking fish to say the least, and in fact, looks like a “generic” illustration of a fish, unlike the sleek and sexy salmon. It doesn’t even jump. However, this fish is a long distance and endurance swimmer, who’s migration from its hatching in rivers of the East Coast to its primary habitat in the Atlantic Ocean up in the Gulf of Maine, makes it one of the Earth’s great travelers. It can swim nearly 20,000 kilometers in its first five years of life and can dive to depths of up to 375 meters. And like all of its clupeid kindred, it is both a key prey species for many large fish and cetaceans in the Atlantic’s pelagic zone (open ocean) and an important commercial fish. But it is the existence of over-fishing, pollution and dams that had brought this species to its knees in many of the major eastern US rivers.

While the Delaware River shad and herring species have rebounded somewhat from low populations in the mid-1900s with the advent of the US Clean Water Act, they continue to struggle to regain their numbers, and in fact, there is now a moratorium on catching river herring in the Delaware River, and NJ has a moratorium on the harvesting of shad and herring on its tributaries to the Delaware River and Atlantic Ocean. As far as tributary access is concerned, the largest tributaries to the Delaware, the Schuylkill and Lehigh Rivers, are still blocked by dams to their mouths with very little efficiency of fish ladders provided; with their dams having very little success in gaining support for the removal of their blockages. So, any gains in additional spawning habitat for such anadromous species is viewed as a significant victory. The opening of the Musconetcong River to migrating fish will be a large contributor to the rebound of American shad, and other river herring species.

As one of the original 13 colonies, NJ was an integral partner in the start of the United States and early industrial revolution. It has been documented through our research during the dam removal regulatory permit application process on this waterway that the Musconetcong River has been dammed just about all the way to its confluence with the Delaware River since the mid-1700s, and likely much earlier. So, before there was anyone who understood the importance of unimpeded rivers for fish migration, this particular route was cut-off in its entirety, and then remained so for well over 250 years. So, it is understandable that there was no reason to assume that anadromous fish, such as shad, would resume the use of the river in a short period of time; however, there existed the right habitat for them, should they be afforded access…and the hope of the partners working on this river. There were doubters, to be sure, but “lo and behold”, we now know these mighty fish took advantage of an opening almost immediately.

Now, I am not stating that American shad immediately realized that the Hughesville Dam was gone and took a B-line from the Delaware River to the highest unimpeded location. First, other dams downstream of the Hughesville Dam had been removed over the past several years. These dams included the Finesville Dam (for an excellent video of the story of this dam removal, check out this video by the US Fish and Wildlife Service), removed in 2011 and the Reigelsville Dam remnants (there were two additional remnants found when the first foundation was removed) soon after the Finesville Dam was removed. So, it is likely that American Shad had started moving up the river to the base of the Hughesville Dam between 2011 and 2016. Still the response by American shad is nothing short of spectacular. For the over 250 years this species has not been able to use this river, at all, and now, within a span less than six years of dam removal activities, this fish is raring to comeback and, hopefully, spawn and increase their numbers.

And the efforts are not nearly complete for the Musconetcong River. The finding of the American shad five miles upstream from the Delaware River shows that this river can and, now, does support this fish. This generic looking fish, yet awesome product of evolution should only fuel the fire of continued restoration efforts, proof-positive that the labor and funds spent here, in this river, gets results. Such funds and labor (an staggering amount of time, blood, sweat, and tears) are required in order to get the river restoration work done. These projects have received the majority of their backing from the federal government, through grant programs, natural resource damage funds, and direct Congressional authorized funds. Without support from Washington, D.C.,, and Trenton, none of this work would be possible. And to get these funds, required work by the many team partners to prepare applications, meet with federal agencies, and educate the public through open and transparent meetings and communication. This was an impressive effort by the residents of this watershed, professionals who provided their expertise, and the state and federal employees who have dedicated their lives to this kind of work.

The Musconetcong River, with its recovering ecosystem, and its human and non-human inhabitants continue to amaze me in how we should all strive to strike balance between man and nature; and all this is being accomplished in the most densely populated state in the nation.

The finding of American shad gives me reason to cheer, and is why I do what I do. This is it, the return of a species that at one time we had no assurance would return, has returned. This is hope for us, after all.

Read more about Princeton Hydro’s river restoration and dam/barrier services on our website. Please contact us anytime if you have a project you’d like to discuss.

The Plight of Aging Dams, and One Solution

As dams age, the danger to life and property around them increases. If they were to suddenly fail and flood downstream communities and infrastructure, there would be serious loss of property and life. More and more, dam removal has become the best option for property owners who no longer want or can no longer afford the rising cost of maintenance and repair work required to maintain such a complex structure.

The Courier-Post recently published this Commentary piece titled, “The Plight of Aging Dams, and One Solution”, which was written by Princeton Hydro’s Vice President and Principal Engineer Geoffrey M. Goll:

Many of our nation’s dams, while originally intended to provide benefits for mills, water supply and energy generation, are severely aged and unmaintained. Nearly 20,000 of the dams on the Army Corps of Engineers’ National Inventory of Dams – which doesn’t even include many dams that are not inventoried or known about – were built in the 1960s. With expected lifespans of 50 years, these dams have reached their limit. And by 2020, 70 percent of all dams will be over 50 years old. Like roads and bridges, dams also require upkeep, maintenance and eventually removal or rehabilitation.

As dams age, the danger to life and property around them increases. If they were to suddenly fail and flood downstream communities and infrastructure, there would be loss of property and life. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials, the professional organization for dam safety engineering professionals and regulators, estimates there would need to be a $21 billion investment to repair just 2,000 deficient, high-hazard dams. More and more, the removal of dams has become an option for owners who no longer want or no longer can afford the rising cost of maintenance and repair work required to maintain such a complex structure.

For dams like this, removal benefits local economies, and eliminates threats to people and property in local communities. There are also many byproduct benefits, including restoring fish migration routes, improving water quality, restoring floodplain functions and values, and increasing biodiversity.

On Sept. 8, we had the honor of meeting the Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell during a visit of our Hughesville Dam removal project on the Musconetcong River, located in northwestern New Jersey. This project exemplifies the successes that can be achieved through public-private partnerships, including local communities, state and federal agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and private commercial entities. This is the fifth dam removed on the Musconetcong River by a coalition of stakeholders, led by the Musconetcong Watershed Association. The Department of the Interior (specifically, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) provided funding to remove this very old, out-of-compliance dam.

The success of these partnerships is due to the unique strengths that each organization brings to the table. This project achieved the removal of a flood and safety hazard, and will restore additional river miles for migratory fish, improve water quality by removing the heat sink of the reservoir, and provide additional safe passage for recreation along the river.

It is easy to see why Secretary Jewell chose this site to visit, but the old and outdated dam at Hughesville is far from alone. Across the nation, we need to remove dams like this at a much larger scale – aging dams that no longer are of value to us, but increase the danger to those who live downstream. If we can build on this momentum and start to address the issue of dam safety compliance on a national scale, we can address these threats to American’s safety and strengthen local economies.

The Westtown Dam and Lake Restoration Project is Now Complete!

westtown-0720161456Princeton Hydro is proud to announce the completion of the Westtown dam restoration and dredging project. For the past 10 years, Princeton Hydro has been working with the Westtown School on dam safety compliance and lake restoration and is the engineer-of-record for the restoration of the Westtown dam and lake.

Westtown School, a hallmark of the Westtown Lake community, initially contracted Princeton Hydro to complete dam inspections and assess the lake in terms of its environmental health and the need for dredging. The completion of this project is a testament to the School’s commitment to its mission of “inspiring and preparing its graduates to be stewards and leaders of a better world”. The School leads by example through practicing dam safety compliance and working to restore the lake for future generations.

westtown-img_2438For the dam, Princeton Hydro completed periodic visual inspections, dam breach and inundation analysis, the preparation of an Emergency Action Plan (EAP), and the Operations and Maintenance Manual.

For rehabilitation, Princeton Hydro designed the dam to be able to pass the 100-year flood event via a completely new drop spillway and outfall barrel, and the construction of an auxiliary/emergency cast-in-place stepped spillway. As part of the rehabilitation of the dam, Princeton Hydro surveyed and designed the dredging of 56,000 cubic yards of sediment, the rehabilitation of the lake’s sedimentation forebay and spillway, and the enlargement of a culvert on Westtown Road, immediately downstream of the dam. The culvert replacement was required due to the closure of two secondary outlets on the dam and corresponding culverts below Westtown Road.

westtown-0713161041aThis project also required a variety of permits, including a Chester County soil erosion and sediment control plan approval, a Dam Safety construction permit, a PADEP General Permit 11 for the road crossing, and a US Army Corps of Engineers Individual Permit in compliance with the Federal Clean Water Act.

Additionally, Princeton Hydro successfully navigated interests for two species of concern: the bog turtle (federal and state listed) habitat and red-bellied turtle (state listed) populations.

Following design and permitting, Princeton Hydro provided construction documentation and administration, including the review of shop drawings, monitoring soil compaction, inspecting concrete pours and collecting concrete test cylinders for break tests (ACI certified engineers), completing monthly progress reports, reviewing payment requests and change orders, and attend bi-weekly project meetings with the client. Flyway Excavating, the contractor for the project, worked seamlessly with the School and Princeton Hydro to accomplish the overall goals of the design.

The Westtown project is an excellent example of Princeton Hydro’s turnkey engineering, permitting, and construction administration services. Please contact us if you have a similar project you need assistance with or have questions about.

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*Photos courtesy of Flyway Excavating.