American Shad Discovered Just Miles Upstream of Former Columbia Dam

Struggling fish species returns to spawning grounds for the first time in over a century, just months after dam removal completed

For the first time in over a century, American Shad (Alosa sapidissima) have been discovered upstream from the former Columbia Dam site on the 42-mile long Paulins Kill river, an important tributary to the Delaware River in northwestern New Jersey. Princeton Hydro’s Senior Water Resources Engineer and avid fisherman, Dr. Clay Emerson, PE, CFM, caught an American Shad in the Paulins Kill miles above the previous dam site this past weekend.

A successful collaboration between The Nature Conservancy, American Rivers, Princeton Hydro, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and NJDEP Division of Fish and Wildlife Service, resulted in the removal of the out-of-commission hydroelectric Columbia Dam just months ago. Prior to this removal, American Shad and other migratory fish could not make it past the large dam structure to swim upstream to their important breeding grounds.

“I was thrilled to feel the familiar hit and see the flash of an American Shad as I reeled the fish to shore. Being an avid shad fisherman and enthusiast, I knew the significance of seeing this beautiful fish back in a place where it’s always belonged,” said Clay. “We are thrilled to witness the American Shad return upstream so quickly after the century-old Columbia dam was removed. It’s a testament to the nearly instant benefits that dam removal has on the riverine ecosystem.”

The American shad’s return is an excellent sign of the overall ecological health and diversity of the river. Historically, dams, overfishing, and pollution have caused population decline in many of the major eastern U.S. rivers. American Shad, deemed the “Mid-Atlantic salmon,” are anadromous, which means they spend much of their lives in the ocean but return to rivers and their tributaries to spawn. This long distance swimmer makes it one of the Earth’s great travelers. After spawning upstream in rivers of the East Coast, American Shad migrate to their primary habitat in the Atlantic Ocean up in the Gulf of Maine. Unlike the salmon of the Pacific Ocean, American Shad may return to their spawning grounds multiple times over their lifetime. The species is a key prey species for many large fish and cetaceans like dolphins and whales in the Atlantic Ocean.

“The best indicator of river water quality improving in the Paulins Kill is the appearance of shad miles upstream from the Columbia Dam,” said Dr. Barbara Brummer, New Jersey State Director of The Nature Conservancy. “Today, we celebrate proof that with the 100-year dam impediment removed, they are once again successfully swimming up the river. I could not be happier! This is what teamwork and passion for nature can achieve. It is a great day for conservation in New Jersey, with many more great days for shad in the Paulins Kill to come.”

Princeton Hydro was contracted to investigate, design, and apply for permits for the removal of this dam as requested by American Rivers in partnership with the New Jersey chapter of The Nature Conservancy. The firm investigated, designed, and prepared the necessary permits for the dam removal. The team of engineers and ecologists studied the feasibility of removal by collecting sediment samples, performing bioassay tests, and conducting a hydraulic analysis of upstream and downstream conditions.

A view of the Columbia Dam at the beginning of the removal process.

“We are proud to be a part of this collaborative project, which has had an immediate and positive impact to the ecosystem of the Delaware River Watershed and its fishery resources,” said Princeton Hydro’s President Geoffrey Goll, PE. “Re-discovering this Delaware River diadromous icon upstream of the former dam is a very promising sign that the river will once again return to a major migration route and nursery for American Shad. This is why we do what we do!”

A view of the former Columbia Dam towards the end of the dam removal process.

This Columbia Dam Removal project could not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of the following partner organizations: The Nature Conservancy of New Jersey, American Rivers, Princeton Hydro, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, RiverLogic Solutions, NJDEP Division of Fish and Wildlife Service, and SumCo EcoContracting.

Anglers are reminded, according to New Jersey fishing regulations, except for the Delaware River mainstem it is illegal to fish for shad in any fresh waters of New Jersey.

Princeton Hydro has designed, permitted, and overseen the reconstruction, repair, and removal of a dozens of small and large dams in the Northeast. To learn more about our fish passage and dam removal engineering services, visitbit.ly/DamBarrier.

PHOTOS: Columbia Dam Removal

VIDEO: “Columbia Lake Dam when the water level was 18 inches to 2 feet lower”
Video courtesy of Matt Hencheck

In Northwest New Jersey on the Paulins Kill, an important tributary to the Delaware River, the century-old hydroelectric Columbia Dam is actively being removed. Princeton Hydro was contracted by American Rivers to investigate, design, and apply for permits for the removal of this dam for the New Jersey chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Our team of engineers and ecologists studied the feasibility of removal by collecting sediment samples, performing bioassay tests, and conducting a hydraulic analysis of upstream and downstream conditions. We’re excited to report that the Columbia Dam removal has officially commenced!

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection started draining water from Columbia Lake a few weeks ago, which was the first step in removing the dam. Princeton Hydro has subsequently been contracted by The Nature Conservancy to provide construction administration services.  Photos below show the water at lowered levels at the impoundments.

“Dewatering Impoundment” Photo by Princeton Hydro

“An aerial drone snapshot when water levels were down about 5 feet at the upper impoundment” Photo courtesy of the New Jersey Chapter of The Nature Conservancy

Last week, the first hammer hit the wall of a downstream dam remnant, officially starting the removal process.

“The first hammer”  Photo courtesy of Dale Bentz, RiverLogic Solutions

The dam removal process will last a few weeks, as the contractor actively knocks down the thick concrete wall.

“Pressure and time”  Photo courtesy of Dale Bentz, RiverLogic Solutions

“Halfway there”  Photo courtesy of Dale Bentz, RiverLogic Solutions

Once the dam is removed, there is a high probability that populations of American Shad and River Herring will be restored. It may also enhance American Eel migration. As a coldwater fishery, this reach also has significant potential for trout species, as well as Smallmouth Bass.

(Top) Before: Photo of the Columbia Dam before construction. (Bottom) After: Princeton Hydro’s rendering of what the river will look like once the dam is removed.

“It is very exciting to be a part of such a monumental effort for the restoration of the Paulins Kill. This river, once a major migration route for diadromous fish like American Shad, will once again be a nursery for this Delaware River icon,” said Geoffrey Goll, PE, President and co-founder of Princeton Hydro. “The removal of these dams will also restore the functions and values of a riparian corridor and floodplain, eliminate costs to the taxpayer for the maintenance of a dam and lake, and provide additional riverine recreational opportunities. I expect to see the same resilience and positive impact to the Delaware River as the recent barrier removals on another major NJ tributary, the Musconetcong River. It is a win-win for NJ, and with The Nature Conservancy at the helm and expert guidance from American Rivers, it has been an experience of a career.”

This project could not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of the following partner organizations: The Nature Conservancy of New Jersey, American Rivers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, RiverLogic Solutions, NJDEP Division of Fish and Wildlife Service, and SumCo EcoContracting.

Princeton Hydro has designed, permitted, and overseen the reconstruction, repair, and removal of a dozens of small and large dams in the Northeast. To learn more about our fish passage and dam removal engineering services, visitbit.ly/DamBarrier.


This video from 2016 features the Nature Conservancy’s New Jersey State Director Barbara Brummer, Ph.D. speaking on the Columbia Dam removal. Video credit: NJ Herald.

Conservation Spotlight: Restoring Fish Passage on the Noroton River

For thousands of years, river herring swam from the Atlantic Ocean through the Long Island Sound and up the Noroton River to spawn each spring. Then, they returned to the ocean until the next spawning season.

Back in the 1920s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration began connecting the country through a massive interstate highway system. As part of the infrastructure plan, hundreds of thousands of culverts were built across the U.S. with the intention of moving water quickly and efficiently. While that goal was met, many migratory fish and other aquatic organisms could not overcome the culverts’ high-velocity flows, shallow water depths, and perched outlets. This infrastructure prevented them from reaching their native migratory destinations.

By the late 1950s, Interstate 95 cut through Connecticut’s coastal rivers, and culverts were installed to convey river flows. Alewives, American Shad, Blueback Herring, and other native fish species were unable to navigate the culverts. Their populations dwindled to the point where Connecticut, along with Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and North Carolina, instituted moratoriums on catching and keeping the valued forage fish.

Along the Noroton River, three parallel concrete culverts, each 300-feet long, 13-feet wide and 7-feet in height were installed, completely blocking upstream fish passage.  In order to restore important fish populations and revitalize the Noroton River, Save the Sound launched a project that reopened approximately seven miles of the river, allowing migratory fish populations to safely and easily travel through the culverts to reach their original spawning habitat upstream.

The project is a collaboration among Save the Sound, Darien Land Trust, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CTDEEP), Connecticut Department of Transportation, Princeton Hydro, and other partners. For the project, Princeton Hydro lead design engineering and guided the construction of the following elements to restore upstream fish passage:

  • The installation of a concrete weir at the upstream end of the culvert to increase water depths in one culvert during low-flow periods;
  • The installation of concrete baffles to reduce flow velocities and create resting places for fish, and;
  • The installation of a naturalized, step-pool, rock ramp at the downstream end of the project to allow fish to ascend into the culvert gradually, overcoming the two-foot vertical drop present under existing conditions. The rock ramp consists of a grouted riverstone base with large grouted boulders arranged to make steps, with low-flow passage channels, between a series of pools approximately 1-foot deep that create resting places for upstream migrating fish.

Reopening river passage for migratory species will improve not only the health of the Noroton River itself, but will also benefit the overall ecosystem of Long Island Sound. Over the last decade, fish passage projects around the sound’s Connecticut and New York shores have dramatically increased freshwater spawning habitat for the foundational species whose return is restoring a more vibrant food web to the Long Island Sound.

Construction of the baffles and rock ramp were completed in time for the 2018 migratory season. Construction of the concrete weir is on temporary hold for low-flow conditions. On April 26, 2018, project partners gathered for a project celebration and the release of migratory fish by CTDEEP at an upstream location.

“It’s fascinating to feel the change in the flow patterns against your legs as you walk through the baffled culvert knowing that it will now facilitate fish passage through this restored reach,” said Princeton Hydro’s New England Regional Office Director and Water Resources and Fisheries Engineer Laura Wildman, P.E. “It is a very attractive and natural-looking fishway, and we’re proud to have created a design that fits so well into the surrounding landscape.”

Princeton Hydro has designed, permitted, and overseen the reconstruction, repair, and removal of a dozens of small and large dams in the Northeast.  To learn more about our fish passage and dam removal engineering services, visit: bit.ly/DamBarrier.