Richard B. Karel is a freelance writer in Baltimore
The final phase of the long-awaited removal of the Bloede Dam in Maryland’s Patapsco Valley State Park was completed in early June, representing a victory for nature and common sense. A decade in the making, the project cost more than $17 million in combined federal, state and nongovernmental resources and was spearheaded by the nonprofit American Rivers.
Though the 220-foot-long Bloede Dam, built in the early 1900s, once provided a source of hydroelectric power to Catonsville and Ellicott City, it became dormant in 1924. Like many dams nationwide, its continued presence was causing more harm than good. A $1.5 million fish ladder installed in 1992 did little to aid affected fish species, and just keeping the dam in place would have cost at least $1 million more, estimates show.
As the first choke point in the Patapsco River, the dam had a serious adverse effect on a wide range of migratory fish species and on the overall health of the river. The dam’s removal has opened up more than 65 miles of spawning habitat in the Patapsco-Chesapeake watershed for American and hickory shad, alewife and blueback herring and more than 183 miles for American eel, and will improve fish habitats, fishing and other recreational opportunities.
In addition to disrupting the aquatic and riparian habitat, Bloede Dam, like other aging dams, had become a serious public-safety hazard, with at least nine people dying in and around the dam since the 1980s, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Ranger Paul J. Travers, who once helped recover the body of a drowning victim at Bloede Dam, said at the initiation of the removal process: “Today, we can give Bloede Dam the death sentence that it rightfully deserves. Removing the dam is not a financial option; it is a moral obligation.”
As Wendi Weber, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s northeast regional director, noted, “Free-flowing rivers create healthier coastal habitats for migratory fish and other wildlife and enhance recreational opportunities and public safety for nearby communities. What’s good for nature is good for people, too.” And, because the Patapsco empties into the Chesapeake Bay, its further restoration contributes to improving the health of the bay.
In addition to improved fishing and swimming opportunities, the free-flowing river now will provide kayaking and canoeing enthusiasts a chance to traverse a long stretch of water unimpeded by the dam.
In an interview with the Fish and Wildlife Service at the start of the dam’s removal last September, American Rivers President Bob Irvin called the Bloede Dam removal “one of the most significant dam removal and river restoration projects in the country.”
Bloede is the third dam on the Patapsco River to be removed this decade. It was preceded by two upstream dams, Union Dam in 2010 and Simkins Dam in 2011. Removal of the upstream Daniels Dam would further improve the river’s ecosystem, but no project for that is yet planned.
In 2018 alone, 82 dams were removed in the United States; since 1912, 1,578 dams have been removed, according to American Rivers. Despite this, an estimated 90,000 dams remain, most of which no longer serve the purpose for which they were built. There are at least 659 dams remaining in Maryland.
In addition to enhancing public safety and recreation, and restoring river ecology, dam removal also revitalizes floodplains and marshes adjacent to rivers, which are among the most biologically diverse habitats anywhere. These areas not only promote biological diversity, but they also reduce downstream flooding, filter out excess nutrients and recharge groundwater, according to American Rivers.
Removing a dam is the fastest and most effective way to restore a river, and experience has shown that habitat rebounds quickly following removal, and that native and migratory fish populations soon exceed their baselines as the natural cycle of a river reasserts itself. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, now that the project is completed, anglers are likely to see a temporary reduction in fish, followed by a rebound and increase one to two years out.