Construction of the Payne Branch Dam Removal is Complete!

Recently, the Payne Branch Dam Removal and Middle Fork New River Stream Restoration was completed in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. The previously decommissioned dam was removed, and a hundred years’ worth of sediment accumulation was removed. This project spanned 83 days of active demolition, construction, and restoration, implementing grade control and natural channel design structures. The dam, constructed nearly a century ago, fragmented aquatic wildlife habitat and prevented sediment transport. The demolition and restoration design served to reconnect these essential functions and allow wildlife passage, returning the channel to its natural state. The banks of the Middle Fork New River were stabilized using mainly native materials, with organic stabilization materials such as live stakes and coconut coir matting. Planting of native riparian woody vegetation will occur during the dormant season of 2020/2021, stabilizing and shading the stream for years to come.

By design, dams create dramatic waterfalls and dam removal must include significant grade control in order to return the stream to a functioning state and allow for wildlife passage. To mitigate the dramatic change in elevation, Brushy Fork’s Engineering Division designed a sequence of cascades and riffles, implemented by North State Environmental’s construction team. This design allows for the safe passage of aquatic fish, insects and crustaceans previously made impossible by the dam. Most fish species instinctively migrate upstream to spawn in the same place as their parents. Dams without a mechanism (such as a fish ladder) to move species around them can result in a decline in reproductive success of fish species because they fragment fish habitat; therefore, removing inactive dams such as the Payne Branch structure is an essential conservation practice and should reconnect wildlife passageways that have been blockaded since 1924. 

During excavation, bedrock as well as many large boulders were uncovered with some being reused in-stream as natural channel design features and others placed into the floodplain to provide seating and vantage points for park visitors to view the beautiful new channel design. The history uncovered in the soil profile during excavation was an interesting aspect to this project and revealed many intriguing items and events in the history of the dam. For example, a ~100 year old Crush soda bottle was discovered perfectly preserved during the removal of sediment as well as a gravel layer roughly 3 feet from the original stream bed which was likely deposited during the storm damage to the Payne Branch Dam in the 1940s. 

New River Light and Power (ASU), the Middle Fork Greenway Committee, Resource Institute, Inc., North State Environmental, Inc., and Brushy Fork Environmental, Inc. all collaborated on this project to produce a naturally functioning stream corridor, reconnect ecological communities, and enhance recreation opportunities on site. In the future, picnic tables and foot bridges over stormwater channels will be installed, making this park on the Middle Fork Greenway even more accessible to the public!