Fish Passage Program

Background Information

Throughout their ranges on the East Coast of the United States, migratory fish stocks are on the decline. Like many other East Coast states, Virginia was once known for its high quality spring runs of anadromous fishes. During the Colonial Period colonists relied heavily, as did Native Peoples, on the abundant stocks of shad and herring that migrated deep into the heart of the state. Evidence indicates that American shad were fished near the headwaters of the James River, hundreds of river miles from the Chesapeake Bay. The historical record also indicates that shad and herring routinely migrated through the fall zone and into the upper reaches of all major drainages in Virginia. Throughout the 1800’s, the harvest of shad and presumably herring increased dramatically throughout Virginia. The number of dams and other impediments also increased throughout the state to provide waterpower for a growing agricultural and industrial base, and to support an expanding canal system. By the early 1900’s, heavy fishing pressure and loss of spawning and rearing habitat began to impact shad populations and, to some extent, herring stocks. During the middle of the 20th Century there was a surge of fishing effort, and thus harvest, just prior to a steady decline that began in the 1970s. By 1990 only 450,000 pounds of shad was harvested in Virginia, a mere fraction of the eight million pounds at the turn of the century (19th to 20th).

The importance of migratory fish species was recognized in the 1987 Chesapeake Bay Agreement and re-affirmed in Chesapeake 2000. A commitment was endorsed to “provide for fish passage at dams and remove stream blockages whenever necessary to restore natural passage for migratory and resident fish.” The Fish Passage Work Group of the Bay Program’s Living Resource Subcommittee developed strategies (1988) and implemented plans (1989) to fulfill this commitment. In 2004, the original Fish Passage Goal of 1,357 miles (established in 1987) was exceeded. Chesapeake 2000 led to the establishment of a new Fish Passage Goal, set in 2004, committing signatory jurisdictions to the completion of 100 fish passage/dam removal projects, which will re-open 1,000 miles of high-quality habitat to migratory and resident fishes. Virginia will be responsible for roughly 1/3 of the miles to be reopened. This increased the overall goal to 2,807 total miles. In 2007, the partners reopened 122 additional miles (54.7 in VA). This brought the total miles reopened to date to 2,288, which is 81% of the total goal. The fish passage partners are well on the way to achieving the new goal.

Project Approach

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) is using a state matched EPA Chesapeake Bay Program grant to fulfill the 1989 Implementation Plan initiatives for removing impediments to migratory fishes and restoring depleted migratory fish stocks in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This includes employing a Fish Passage Coordinator whose job it is to identify, complete, and monitor fish passage projects. This work is timely and ecologically significant. Coordination involves a multi-faceted approach to address migratory fish restoration in Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay. The Fish Passage Project and the Shad Restoration Project compliment each other.

Completed Fish Passage Projects in Virginia

James Drainage

Manchester and Brown’s Island Dam Breaches – 1989; reopened 6 miles (photo – Manchester Dam | photo – Brown’s Island Dam)

These two dams located in downtown Richmond on the James River were breached using explosives in January 1989. The breaches are located near the north shore of the river where the two dams are close together. You can see the 100′ breaches from the public access “cat-walk” on Brown’s Island. This was a cooperative effort of the Commonwealth, DWR, the City of Richmond and the Council on the Environment. Belle Isle Dam is approximately 1 mile upstream of Brown’s Island Dam but it was naturally breached during a storm so a total of 6 miles was reopened up to William’s Island Z-Dam when the breaches were done.

Belle Isle Dam Natural Breach

Two sections of this dam are breached near the dam’s connection to the western end of Belle Isle. The breaches occurred during a high water storm event prior to the 1989 fish passage projects at Manchester and Brown’s Island dams.

Williams Island Dam Notch; reopened 2.6 miles

The City of Richmond draws its drinking water from the pool behind the dams at William’s Island on the James River in Richmond. The most upstream dam on the south channel is most commonly known as the Z-Dam. In November of 1993 a 30′ wide by 2.5′ deep notch was cut into the dam to allow migratory fish passage. This was a cooperative effort of DWR, the City of Richmond, the James River Association, the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program, NOAA/NMFS, and the USFWS.

Bosher’s Dam Vertical Slot Fishway – 1999; reopened 137.6 mainstem miles

The vertical slot fishway at Bosher’s Dam on the James River has been in operation since 1999. This fishway completed provision of fish passage through the fall zone at Richmond, Virginia. The fishway has the capacity to pass hundreds of thousands of fish annually. Based on historical population levels the Tier 1 target for American shad was set in 1995 at 500,000 shad. The fishway serves to provide aquatic connectivity for multiple species in this river reach. Long-range migratory fishes (e.g., anadromous shad and catadromous eel) are once again able to access the 137.6 miles of the James River up to Lynchburg as well as close to 170 miles of several major James tributaries. Annual monitoring shows the fishway to be effective at passing American shad, striped bass, sea lamprey and over 25 additional resident species. American eel elvers heading upstream from the hatched ocean pass through the fishway on their way to their rearing habitat.

There is a livestream webcam trained on the viewing window in the counting room at the fishway exit channel for the public to see into the world of the migrating fish and for DWR biologists to check on migration progress. The Shad Cam is operational during the spring migration season from mid-March to mid June. Visit the Shad Cam at Bosher’s Dam fishway.

Woolen Mills Dam Removal – 2007

DWR partnered with the Rivanna Conservation Society, EPA CBP, American Rivers-NOAA, USFWS, Fish America Foundation, the owners, and several other cooperators to remove this dam from the Rivanna River near Charlottesville, VA. American shad are using the Boshers Dam fishway and ascending the James River into historical spawning habitat. The Rivanna River historically supported a spawning population of American shad. Removal will immediately benefit resident fish species, American eel (catadromous) and potentially American shad (anadromous). Removal will also benefit recreational boaters.

Quinn Dam Removal – 2007 (photo)

DWR partnered with the owners of the dam, the adjacent landowners, Virginia Organizing Project, American Rivers-NOAA and dedicated volunteers to remove this dilapidated dam from the Tye River near Rt. 29. The Tye is within the historical range of anadromous and catadromous fish species. Removal will also benefit resident fish species and allow for safe boating recreation as this is a popular paddling corridor.

Harrison Lake Dam Denil Fishway – 1989; reopened 1 mile

This 10′ dam forms 82-acre Harrison Lake on Herring Creek in Charles City County at the Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery. The impoundment is used as a water supply for the hatchery. Historically, river herring ascended Herring Creek each spring to spawn. A Denil-style fishway was completed in 1989 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Walkers Dam Double Denil Fishway – 1989; reopened 30 miles (photo)

Located on the Chickahominy River near Lanexa this double Denil fishway on Walkers Dam was rebuilt in 1989 by the City of Newport News to allow migratory fish to pass into the shallow Chickahominy Reservoir and its tributaries. Striped bass, blueback herring, alewife and American shad have been documented using the fishway.

Harvell Dam Denil Fishway – 1998; reopened 5.7 miles (photo)

A Denil fishway was built on this 9′ dam located in Petersburg on the Appomattox River as a requirement of the owner’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hydropower license. Currently, the dam is not being operated for hydropower and subsequently the fishway is not being operated properly. DWR is exploring the possibility of removing the dam to ensure fish passage at this first dam on the river.

Abutment Dam Denil Fishway – 2003; reopens 1.3 miles

DWR partnered with the City of Petersburg (dam owner), the USFWS and the EPA CBP to design and construct a 4′ wide Denil fishway on this dam (5’–7′) on the Appomattox River. The dam is approximately 1 mile downstream of Brasfield Dam (Lake Chesdin).

Brasfield Dam Fish Lift – 2004 (photo)

When Brasfield Dam was retrofitted for hydropower in 1993, the owners (STS Power at the time) constructed 90% of a fish lift to meet the requirements of their Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license. In 2004, the fish lift was completed because fish passage had been provided at the downstream dams (Harvell and Abutment; Battersea Dam was naturally breached). This fish lift is equipped with an observation window and a juvenile downstream migrant sluiceway that is designed to safely pass juveniles downstream and not through the siphon unit turbine.

Rappahannock Drainage

Embrey Dam Removal – 2004/2005; reopened 106 miles of the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers (video)

A multi-member partnership including Senator John Warner, DWR, City of Fredericksburg (owners), USACE, Friends of the Rappahannock, Stafford County and many others, planned, designed, raised funding for, and implemented the removal of this 22′ dam from the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg. The initial breach was done by explosives (Army and Air Force demolition/dive specialists) in February of 2004 and by the spring of 2005 the rest of the dam was completed removed except for historical features such as the 1855 crib dam abutments and the 1910 Embrey Dam abutments.

Orange Dam Denil Fishway – 2003 (photo)

The Town of Orange incorporated a Denil fishway into their new water supply dam (4′ high) on the Rapidan River as part of a permit condition to replace a failing water diversion structure. This 3′ wide fishway should pass resident fish species and American eel (catadromous; spawns in ocean, lives in freshwater). Embrey Dam no longer blocks passage to the watershed so if fish passage is established at Rapidan Mill Dam in Rapidan, anadromous fish such as American shad may reach and use this fishway. DWR, the USFWS and the USACE assisted the town with permitting, design and establishment of operation protocols.

Chandlers Dam Denil Fishway – 1995 (photo)

DWR rebuilt this dam in 1995 after it failed during a heavy rainstorm. During reconstruction a 3′ wide Denil fishway was included near the main spillway of this 9′ high dam on Chandlers Run, a tributary of Cat Point Creek that flows into the Chickahominy River. River herring historically ascended this stream in the spring to spawn. Chandlers is a Department controlled public fishing lake.

White Oak Run Pool and Weir Fishway – 2005

The 1999 Rappahannock Basin Impediment Survey conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University (Richmond) for DWR using EPA Bay Program funds identified several herring blockages in the watershed. The Route 601 crossing of White Oak Run (trib of Muddy Run that flows into the Rappahannock near Fredericksburg) was selected for installation of a pool and weir type fishway to pass fish into and through the low water culvert pipe. The USFWS hydraulic engineering staff provided the design for the fishway. The Nature Conservancy provided mitigation Trust Fund funding for the project. The fishway was completed in 2005.

Potomac Drainage

McGaheysville Dam Removal – 2004 (photo)

DWR partnered with the City of Harrisonburg, American Rivers-NOAA and Pure Water 2000 to remove this dilapidated dam from the South Fork of the Shenandoah River near McGaheysville, VA. The dam presented a hazard to boaters and was a partial blockage to fish migration. Resident fishes and American eel benefit from this dam removal project.

Knightly Dam Removal – 2004 (photo)

DWR partnered with the adjacent landowners to remove this dilapidated dam that was partially blocking the Middle River, a tributary of the South Fork Shenandoah. The river was flowing around the dam causing severe erosion.

Rockland Dam Removal – 2005

DWR partnered with the adjacent landowner, American Rivers-NOAA and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to complete this partial removal project on the North River, a tributary of the South Fork Shenandoah River. Half of the dam was completely removed and the other half was lowered and left in place to stabilize a wetlands-type area that had formed just upstream of the dam. This removal benefits resident fish species and American eel.

Potential Fish Passage Projects in Virginia

Harvell Dam Removal (photo)

Although there is a fishway at this dam removal is being considered because the hydropower facility is no longer operating and as a result, the fishway is not being operated. The fishway only had marginal success so removal would be the best option for fish passage at this site.

Ashland Mill Dam – would reopen 9 miles

Provision of fish passage is needed at this 13′ dam on the South Anna River near Rt. 1 to allow anadromous, catadromous and resident fish species access to native spawning habitat. American shad, hickory shad, blueback herring, alewife herring, striped bass and American eel reach this dam each spring but cannot access historical upstream spawning habitat. Passage should be provided either with a Denil fishway or perhaps by removing the dam.

Ashland Water Supply Dam – would reopen 28 miles

A simple notch is needed at this low-head (3′) water supply dam on the South Anna River near State Rt. 54 in Hanover County.

Riverton Dam – Front Royal, VA (photo)

Plans are currently underway to remove this dam from the North Fork Shenandoah River. The dam is owned by the City of Front Royal and is no longer serving any purpose. Removing the dam would reopen virtually the rest of the North Fork. American eel and resident fish species will likely benefit from this restoration project.