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Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
Ellington Agricultural Center
440 Hogan Road
Nashville, TN 37220
(615) 781-6500
Roaring River Dam Becomes Largest in TN Ever to be Removed for Restoration

A lot has changed on the Roaring River since its designation in 1968 as a state scenic river. Jack Swearengin should know. A lifelong resident of Jackson County and a fisheries biologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, he saw the Roaring River dam built in 1976-a full 15-feet tall and 220 feet long-and he participated in its dismantling in August of 2017. During that span, ecological knowledge of the river, fishing customs, and recreational use of the river have all changed.

Originally constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) as part of the Cordell Hull dam project, the Roaring River low-head dam was built at TWRA's request to keep reservoir species from migrating upstream into areas inhabited by stream fish. The best management at the time was to keep undesirable fish such as suckers and chubs from moving upstream. "We know better now," Swearengin said, "Suckers, chubs and other rough fish are an integral part of an ecosystem. Young fish and fish eggs are a food source for many other species. Older fish are not only fun to catch; they can be a food source for humans too."

Moreover, fish surveys have shown that the barrier was not effective. Even more concerning, the structure at its base was eroding in what is known as a "head cut," creating a risk that the dam might fail.

The use of the river has also changed. Paddlers and swimmers use the river most weekends now. "With the dam failing, it provided an opportunity to enhance the connectivity within the Roaring River Watershed and remove a hazard to people on the river," said Mark Thurman, TWRA Region 3 Fisheries Coordinator. "While the barrier did not exclude reservoir species, it still functioned as a barrier through most of the year. Removing the dam has opened up the river for fish such as white bass, sauger, smallmouth bass and redhorse." Prior to removal, sampling below the dam revealed healthy populations of white bass, whereas no white bass were found above the dam, making it likely this is one of many species that will spread to upstream of the dam site. There is a growing recognition that removing these old dams results in safer rivers for recreation and healthier habitat for wildlife. The Roaring River Dam during the removal process.

The dam's removal also benefits other species such as hellbenders, whose numbers have declined across the species range. The Eastern Hellbender is a giant native salamander (growing up to 16 inches) that is proposed for state listing as endangered (a means of keeping species off the federal list, read more). Hellbenders exist both above and below the dam. Reconnecting these populations will improve reproduction and overall species health.

Partners in the joint effort to remove the aging dam included TWRA, the USACE, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and the Southern Aquatic Resources Partnership. "We know of more than 2,000 of these dams in Tennessee's rivers and streams," said Rob Bullard, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers Program Director with The Nature Conservancy. "Many have outlived their intended purpose and fallen into disrepair. There is a growing recognition that removing these old dams results in safer rivers for recreation and healthier habitat for wildlife."

Many others have no doubt been witness to changes similar to those Swearengin has seen in his lifetime. Private landowners or others interested in removing failing or aging dams from their properties should contact Rob Bullard at The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee: ebullard@tnc.org or 615-383-9909.

When asked what he most enjoyed about his job with TWRA, Swearengin responded, "Everything. TWRA has put a lot into this county including the Boils, Cordell Hull, and Blackburn Fork WMAs. I'm glad to be a part of taking the river back in time to a healthier place." Those working for TWRA have a deep-rooted passion for protecting wildlife and fisheries for future generations through scientific study and habitat management. Removal of the Roaring River dam is a fine example of the kind of legacy that staff leave through their dedication to the job.

View or download a photo-illustrated factsheet about the Roaring River dam removal.

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