Intervention: The Road to Removal of Harvell Dam

Harvell Dam, virginiaHarvell Dam on the Appomattox River, Virginia

By the time you read this, work will be underway to remove the Harvell Dam on the Appomattox River.

As the first obstruction on the river, the Harvell Dam has long been deemed the most critical fish passage site on the Appomattox and one of the highest priority sites for migratory fish restoration in Virginia. The project will re-open 127 miles of upstream habitat for migratory fish, such as American and Hickory Shad, American Eel, and river herring. As we celebrate this day and this success, it’s only appropriate we focus on the significance of what this could mean for fish in this system. However, the road to dam removal was paved with challenges.

The Harvell Dam, originally constructed to generate hydropower, will be the sixteenth dam removed within the Chesapeake Bay drainage in Virginia since 2004. Its removal will contribute to the nearly 1000 miles of river and stream habitat already reopened to migratory and resident fish species, and help to attain the Chesapeake Bay fish passage overall goal of opening an additional 1000 stream miles by 2025. Removal is expected to be completed in early September.

The Harvell Dam was originally constructed to generate hydropower and followed a succession of earlier dams at the site. Since receiving a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license in 1987, Harvell’s owner(s) (the license was transferred more than once) violated numerous license articles, ignored  orders to comply with the law, and had even failed to pay a civil penalty it had agreed to in an earlier settlement agreement.

Even FERC knew that there was a problem with Harvell Dam.  In September 2003, FERC issued an Order Proposing Revocation of License for the Harvell hydroelectric project. In its revocation order, the agency wrote that “the licensee has not shown a willingness to operate within the parameters of its license, nor has it obeyed orders to comply.” It catalogued a stunning litany of “long standing and persistent violations which have damaged and continue to endanger the environment,” including failure to properly maintain and operate a fishway required by the license and violation of minimum flow requirements (which led to a fish kill).

But FERC proposed to wash its hands of the whole process.  FERC decided to revoke the dam owner’s license with the potential for the dam owner to walk away from the project without any mitigation of the project’s environmental impacts, leaving the dam (and the inefficient fishway with severely compromised performance) in the river where it would continue to block fish migration.

That’s where American Rivers stepped in, and together with the James River Association, we formally intervened in the process. We were joined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. All of the intervenors recognized the potential for this to set a damaging precedent for FERC, under which a licensee could simply walk away from a license (and any conditions placed upon that license) without resolving any of the issues that those conditions were imposed in order to address in the first place.

The resource agencies and American Rivers worked side by side to develop a plan of action following a settlement conference with FERC and licensee in early 2005 and conducted numerous meetings and calls among the interested parties. Significant headway was made in an attempt to (1) allow the dam owner to surrender its license and liability for the dam and (2) develop a course of action for working with the City of Petersburg and the licensee to ensure the removal of the structure.

These discussions took a strange turn when the LLC holding the license was apparently dissolved via bankruptcy after the death of the owner. Later, the property and dam were sold to the current owner of the site, and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries successfully negotiated removal of the Harvell Dam and restoration of fish passage with the present owner of the dam.

It’s been a long journey to restoring this stretch of the Appomattox.  But we’re here today, thanks in no small part to our perseverance and our willingness to work through challenges that we face in order to get the job done. Today proves that despite the hiccups along the way, perseverance is worth it. By striving to work collaboratively, we can reverse habitat loss and provide access to spawning and rearing grounds for these valuable migratory fish.