A dam goes down, and darter fish go up.
At least that’s the hope of the Freshwater Land Trust, which announced the Turkey Creek Dam Removal Project last week.
“The dam was built in the 1920s as a swimming/fishing hole,” says the trust’s Director of Land Stewardship Rebekah Parker. The private owner also tried to build a honky-tonk near it, but that never panned out, Parker says, adding, “It was gone before we were even involved in the property.”
Currently only the Turkey Creek Dam, formerly known as the Old Shadow Lake Dam, remains on the property, part of the surrounding 226 acres that the Freshwater Land Trust owns. The Birmingham nonprofit, founded in 1996, owns 5,000 acres in Jefferson County.
The Turkey Creek Watershed, located in Pinson, is “where we’ve been doing a lot of our acquisitions and restoration work over the past 15 years,” Parker says, citing specifically, the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, Tapawingo Springs, and Crosby Lake in Clay. “This is in one of the areas that we work in a good deal.”
The dam project is necessary for two reasons, says Shaina Berry, the executive and communications assistant for Freshwater Land Trust. She calls the dam a safety hazard. “If there was a breach in the dam or there was a major flood event, it wouldn’t be good for human life because all the sediment could come out,” she says.
The area behind the dam has totally filled in with silt since 1920, Parker says. “Because of all the silt and sediment, you can walk behind the dam, and it’s only knee-deep,” she notes.
“There’s really not a lot of pond left there,” says Eric Spadgenske, state coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s Partners for Fish & Wildlife project. “It’s completely filled to the top with rocks.”
The dam structure itself is “85 feet long and 20 inches wide all the way down,” Berry explains. “That’s not a lot of material holding back 100 years of sediment.”
In addition to a potential safety hazard for humans, the dam blocks passage for the vermilion darter fish, a two-inch-long endangered species. “The vermilion darter only lives in a seven-mile segment of Turkey Creek and nowhere else in the world,” Parker says.
“The fancy word for that is endemic,” Spadgenske says.
“The dam blocks an additional half-mile of habitat,” Parker says, a “pretty significant” stretch of potential home for the black-spotted, red, green and blue fish.
Spadgenske says those fish need “clean, fast-flowing, well-oxygenated water” to thrive.
According to their data, the fish population upstream of the dam hasn’t been seen since 1995, and new fish can’t move in because of the dam barrier.
Parker says the tiny fish “should be a valued species in and of itself, but they also fit into a larger ecosystem.” The vermilion darter is what is known as an indicator species, she explains.
“If you see a vermilion darter in the area you know that you have really good water quality, and that should be important to anybody,” she adds. “They are a good symbol that the ecosystem is functioning, and that is something that can definitely impact human life.”
To monitor the progress of the darter, the public is encouraged to follow updates on Twitter and Facebook, using the hashtag #FreeTheVermilionDarter. “We want people to be able to follow this and celebrate each achievement as it comes, and at the end, get the results,” Berry says.
“Any kind of improvement or new species would be a success,” Parker says. “A huge result that would cause a party over here would be if we saw a vermilion darter upstream of the dam, because that would mean they are actually re-inhabiting that site.”
That may yet be awhile. “We have about a week of prep work just getting the equipment out there,” Parker says. “It’ll take five to seven days to actually remove the dam structure.”
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is funding the demolition phase of the project through their program, Partners for Fish & Wildlife. “We provide technical and financial assistance to private entities who wish to restore their properties,” Spadgenske says. “We have quite a history with the Freshwater Land Trust going back a decade. They’ve been a great partner.”
After the demolition and removal phase, a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will allow the organization to recreate the stream bank, shaping it back to its natural slope. They will also reintroduce native plants and trees.
The project, in the works for three years, is being undertaken carefully. “We’re going to have our staff, people from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, engineers, all sorts of specialists in their fields out there making sure this is done really carefully over a period of time so this is the safest scenario for everyone involved,” Berry says.
This includes the snails that also inhabit the waters. “We relocated 489 snails,” Parker says. “I was in 30-pound waders for five-plus hours.”
Snails and other small species can have a big impact on humans. Berry cites the cone snails, from which scientists have derived the painkiller ziconotide.
“All kinds of new technologies [are] coming out as far as medicines,” she says, “and it’s coming from nature; it’s coming from species of plants and animals.”
She quotes the trust’s executive director: “Something that Wendy Jackson likes to say is that ‘Until we know how a species fits into the engine of life, we should keep all the parts.’”
Alabama has many such parts. “Turkey Creek is a hotspot of biodiversity in Alabama,” the state that ranks highest in aquatic biodiversity, Parker says. “That’s something that Alabamians should be very proud of.”
“Alabama also ranks really high on extinction,” Berry chimes in. “We want to reverse that; we want to preserve not just land but our species.”
The preservation is their legacy. “We treat each of our projects as something to hand down to future generations,” Berry says, “and that’s why we take so much care of each of them.”
The featured image for this post was shot by Zac Napier.