Dam Removal Gives Kelley Branch Some Shiners by Bruce Ritchie

Small straw-colored fish called blacktail shiners darts along the surface of the clear, swirling water in Kelley Branch.

Located west of Tallahassee, Kelley Branch is a stream created by groundwater seeping from the sides of steephead ravines that are up to 150 feet deep. The water flows four miles into Florida's largest river, the Apalachicola.

Steephead ravines are cool and moist compared to the towering sandy bluffs along the river. Shade from massive magnolias, American beech, river birch and sourwood trees shade the smaller Florida yew and rare torreya trees that cling to existence in this part of Florida.

Kelley Branch stream flows through some of the 6,000 acres owned by The Nature Conservancy, which works to protect and restore biodiversity both here and throughout the globe. TNC's Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, located about 40 miles west of Tallahassee, includes a popular hiking trail that crosses Kelley Branch on its way to Alum Bluff, with its view of the river and its expansive floodplain.

What's Old Is New Again

Prior to 2007, blacktail shiners were not found in the upper reaches of Kelley Branch. A dam installed in the 1950s to create a 20-acre fishing lake for a planned housing development had blocked the shiners and other fish from swimming upstream. The development was never built but the dam remained after The Nature Conservancy bought the land.

But in 2007, TNC along with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the dam and began restoring about 2,600 feet of the stream channel. Those involved in the project say similar dam removal projects could restore aquatic habitat across the Southeast.

"The overall goal is to show that this technique is effective for conserving and restoring these stream and river ecosystems," said Steve Herrington, director of freshwater conservation for The Nature Conservancy's Florida Chapter.

The project also involved removal of a road culvert that acted as a dam further upstream on Kelley Branch. Overall, the project cost more than $450,000 with the bulk paid for by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

But there was a major complication. The Nature Conservancy and the state wildlife agency discovered discovered -- once they drained the lake --  that the previous stream channel no longer existed.

Channel Changing

While removing trees in the fishing lake, the original property owner had dug a new channel through the lake bottom, said Michael Hill, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Restoration required designing a new meandering stream channel, he said. While boulders and rocks are plentiful in many northern streams, many streams and rivers in Florida have mostly sand bottoms.

So restoring Kelley Branch required 40 constructed "log vanes" -- fallen trees and rooted tree trunks that are anchored to the river bank --  to guide the water flowl. With the stream descending only three inches per 100 yards, the agencies needed to ensure they did not create waterfalls that would prevent fish from moving upstream.

Even while heavy equipment was constructing the new stream channel, the colorful flagfin shiner with its red tail stripe and fins was seen swimming upstream once the dam was removed. The flagfin shiner had been both upstream and downstream of the dam but was among those species that don't tolerate living in a lake.

Seven new fish species were recorded above the former dam within nine months. They had been found in other creeks in the area and probably had been in Kelley Branch before the dam as built, Herrington said.

Two other species that may have been trapped upstream by the dam now are found throughout Kelley Branch, he said. And seven fish species that live in lakes no longer are found in the stream or are there in very low numbers.

Giving the Forest a Foothold

In addition to restoring the channel, the Nature Conservancy and state are also restoring the forest that grew along the banks of Kelley Branch before the dam was built.

More than 1,000 seedlings and larger trees were planted. A coarse fiber matting produced from coconuts was laid over the stream banks to reduce erosion.

 

A year of dry weather followed by heavy rains in 2008 followed caused erosion to form some gullies.  The heavy rains also washed out some of the log vanes but they were put back and reanchored, Hill said.

But the stream has begun taking on the lush qualities of a water garden. Deep green tufts of juncus, a type of rush found in wet areas, has sprouted on its own along the shoreline. Clumps of strap-leaf sagittaria, a submerged planted that grows two to three feet long, wave gently in the clear current. They were replanted in the restored channel from other portions of Kelley Branch.

 

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection continues to monitor the overall health of the stream system. A 2008 study said the restored stream rated as a seven on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the healthiest. Kelley Branch, above the dam, received a rating of only two before stream restoration.

Some areas still were choked by fine organic matter left from the fishing lake and the restoration work, DEP said. Adding more branches and logs to the stream would improve its potential for fish habitat -- work that TNC is continuing to do.

Continued monitoring is key, Herrington said, to determine which restoration techniques have worked and which have not.

"You don't just walk away and shake each other's hands and say you did a good job," Herrington said. "Monitoring is a terribly important part of it."

Hill said the Kelley Branch restoration is a good model for landowners and they shouldn't be daunted by the cost.  For most dam removal projects, he said, flow could probably be restored through the original stream channel without having to construct a new channel.

Landowners in the region with steephead stream systems should appreciate their uniqueness, Herrington said, and work to restore them when possible.

"Look at the beauty that is under your feet that you can preserve by not (damming) -- or by restoring," he said. "Florida is a gorgeous place that does not end at the water's edge."


Independent journalist Bruce Ritchie has covered Florida growth and environmental issues since 1993. A member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, he previously was a reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat, the Gainesville Sun, and the Florida Times-Union.

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