Payne Branch Project History and Information

Brushy Fork Environmental is excited to be collaborating on a project to remove the Payne Branch Dam this summer!

The Payne Branch Dam, located on the Middle Fork New River in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, was constructed in 1924 by New River Light and Power. The purpose of the dam was to provide energy to Appalachian Training School which would later become Appalachian State University, as well as the Town of Boone. The dam was operated until 1972, when it was destroyed due to safety concerns. Presently, a recent engineering report indicated that the dam and the associated retaining wall were at risk of failing, and recommended the dam be removed. A portion of the dam was destroyed to allow for the free flow of water, however this resulted in a 14 foot waterfall, which acts as a barrier impeding the transport of sediment and woody debris, and preventing natural passage of aquatic organisms.

Dams, although a powerful source of renewable energy, fragment the ecology within streams by reducing species connectivity. For the Payne Branch Dam removal, Brushy Fork has created a design of cascades and pools which will gradually step down to the dam base elevation with falls of less than two feet each. This will allow the passage of fish, crustaceans, insects and other aquatic fauna through the reach, which has been impassible since construction of the dam nearly a century ago. 


Creating continuity within species populations and habitats is crucial, especially in the Middle Fork New River. The New River Basin is home to eight endemic fish species, including the Bigmouth Chub which is of particular biodiversity concern due to its allopatric relationship with its close relatives, the River Chub and the Bull Chub. The New River Basin is also home to both the Candy and the Kanawha Darters, two brilliantly colored fish species. The Candy Darter is currently under review for federal listing as an endangered species, as populations across the drainage are actively decreasing. Removing the Payne Branch Dam will reconnect potential habitat for native fish species of conservation concern, as well as for popular game species such as trout, bass, and walleye. Most fish species, including those mentioned above, 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.


Dams also do not allow for the proper bedload transport, resulting in excess sedimentation and aggradation upstream of the Payne Branch Dam. The process of sediment building up on the bottom of a stream is called siltation. This process is detrimental to the eastern Hellbender, which is federally listed as a near-threatened species of concern. Hellbenders reside in the small gaps between rocks and boulders, and populations deteriorate when these spaces are filled in by excess sediment. Not only does siltation disturb and destroy hellbender habitat, but it also suffocates hellbender eggs, fills in predatory cover for young, and kills crayfish and other invertebrates they feed on. 

Turbidity, or particulate matter suspended in water, is also increased by excess sedimentation, which reduces water quality. This is important because many rare aquatic invertebrates such as mussels, mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies require clear, clean, high-quality water to thrive. If turbidity levels are exasperated by excess sedimentation, populations of these sensitive animals will suffer. 


In addition to the dam removal and sloping, Brushy Fork has incorporated Natural Channel Stream Design structures into the site plan in order to encourage proper sediment transport, and will also haul the surplus sediment offsite in order to restore the natural order of the river. Natural Channel Stream Design implements the morphology of a functioning stream, improving aquatic animal habitat, replacing invasive species with natives, and improves flood control. Brushy Fork is thankful for the partnership with the Resource Institute, Inc., Appalachian State University, Clean Water Management Trust Fund, Middle Fork Greenway, and several private landowners that are working with us to make this project a success!