Woolen Mills Dam breach: Silent Spring, 2007

The Woolen Mills Dam never had a chance and it was all about the money.

Someone asked me how I felt about the Dam being destroyed. I feel like the Buddhists felt in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Confronted by an overwhelming power absolutely convinced of their moral superiority, the minority Buddhists could only watch as their cherished monuments were destroyed. Life on the edge of any system is where the  action is. Our neighborhood, the Woolen Mills, is on the edge in many ways: the water/land edge, the city/county edge, and like Afghanistan, the historical/contemporary edge.

One of the first textbooks we read at the Institute of Environmental Sciences  (I.E.S.) in 1973 was Eugene Odum’s, "Fundamentals of Ecology" which was and still is THE book for the scientific study of ecosystems and man’s place within the co-evolving man/nature environment. The fundamental principle of Professor Odum’s observations is that everything is connected and changing one thing will effect all. The human environment and the natural environment are connected and inter-related. The root word of Ecology is the Greek  word "oikos" meaning house. Since we all can intuit the fundamentals of a healthy house, how appropriate and useful is the house as an analogy.  The environment is always larger and more holistic than we can see.

In the 60’s and 70’s, there was a growing awareness that environmental problems cannot be solved by specialists. At that time, most environmentalists were biologists or trained in the hard sciences. I.E.S. was created in response to this observation and became our nation’s first environmental studies program of an inter-disciplinary nature.

From the I.E.S. web site""The Institute of Environmental Sciences (IES) was developed in 1969 within the Graduate School of Miami University (Ohio). The Institute houses one of the oldest  Master of Environmental Science (M. En.) professional degree programs in the United States. The program philosophy emphasizes both a systematic and interdisciplinary approach to environmental issues as well as the effective communication of knowledge and information."

At I.E.S. we had professors from over 25 disciplines including religion, history, economics, philosophy, meteorology, finance, architecture and sociology to name a few in addition to the expected botanists, biologists and chemists. I came from Chemistry and Engineering and worked with Architects and Sociologists. Most of this essay’s observations stem from my training as a generalists aware of the responsibility environmentalists have to see the largest picture possible. After all, the environment does not know where chemistry ends and meteorology begins.

This project of the RCS needed better biology and a whole lot more sociology.


The Rivanna Conservation Society (RCS) while well meaning has failed to understand how a myopic obsession with one facet of the environment can effect so many other aspects of the environment. At one time I was a member of the RCS but I no longer want to be a member of the Rivanna Conservation Society, I want to be a member of A conservation society.  Conservation  is not only the "preservation, protection or restoration of the natural environment, natural ecosystems, vegetation and wildlife" but also the "repair and prevention of the deterioration of archaelogical, historical and cultural sites and artifacts." The argument for destroying the family-owned, historically unique (see Andrew Cocke’s excellent study on the history of the Dam) Woolen Mills Dam was based almost solely on extending migratory shad habitat. No shad have migrated to  within 35 miles or so of the Dam. Would it not have been more prudent to add shad fry to the Rivanna just below the Dam and then establish shad migration to that point? But destroying a dam is sexy, politically correct and easy.

RCS states time after time that they want to keep part of the Dam for "historical interpretation" and this could not have been done before. Does this make any sense? I think they mean that now observers can come and look at the remains of the Dam and how it was built. But of course, every time someone visited the Dam in the past for any reason, they were gazing upon the Dam and were connected in some way to the workmanship, thoughts and aspirations of our ancestors. I can tell you that as of 9/9/07 there are far fewer individuals looking at the Dam (its remains). So much for "historical interpretation" another classic of doublespeak.

The RCS web site states "RCS hopes their efforts will pay off and shad will return to Charlottesville." This is a shockingly weak statement. They hope the shad will return? Since they are committing an apparently permissible act of historical vandalism which is irreversible, would it not be respectful, would it not be moral and would it not be intelligent, to be 100% certain of the reappearance of the shad? The Woolen Mils Dam is an urban dam unlike the other rural dams which have been destroyed and have served as reference for this act. The Woolen Mills Dam is, if only symbolically, the very heart of the Woolen Mills community. Without the power of the Dam there would haven been no Woolen Mills factory and thus no chapel or workers’ homes. The Dam was and still is to our community as the Sun is to the Earth. Now the Heart has been removed.

The path from conception to Dam breach was a difficult one to follow if a  citizen chose to interject his or her opinions. The owners are of course easy to find and speak to but after that it got very difficult. The City said that after careful consideration they decided they had no purview over this matter. The County of Albemarle was also involved for a while but they concluded the same thing. The Virginia Marine Resource Commission in Newport News was an authorizing organization and Traycie West, in the Habitat Management Division, was very helpful. The VMRC kept a master file and I felt that through this organization at least all view points would be considered. But after nearly a year, Tracyie reported that the VMRC also concluded that they did not have the power to authorize a Dam breach or to prevent one from happening. Tracycie no longer works at the VMRC. Next, I learned in the Spring of 2007 that the application ended up at the Army Corps of Engineers. It was evident from the very earliest days that there was no chance of anything I or my neighbors could say or do that would make any difference. At no time did anyone who had anything to do with authorizing a breach ever respond to any of our letters in the VMRC file.

The mission statement of the RCS states that they are " dedicated to safeguarding the ecological, scenic, recreational, and historic resources of the Rivanna River and its tributaries". There is good evidence that the ecosystem of the River has deteriorated, the scenic and recreational assets have certainly deteriorated and it goes without saying that the historical resources have been diminished. In another, classic doublespeak, the RCS states "it is our intention to preserve the history of the dam as well as the ecological history of the river by conducting a ….breach" (page 9 of the report). They are preserving by destroying.  If I was a member of the RCS I would want my money back.

On page 4 of the report they list as two of the benefits of destroying the Dam an "elimination of owner liability" and "an elimination of requirements of regulatory inspections". Since when is a non-profit organization concerned with reducing or eliminating a "for-profit corporation’s" expenses or exposure? If I was the IRS I would want my 501(c)(3) back.

A dam breach provides the RCS with a seed project around which funding can crystallize. The Dam allowed RCS to go after available money which helps to legitimize their organization and provide administrative funding. There are not many projects that provide such relatively easy funding opportunities.  It is a shame they did not force themselves to be more diligent and rigorous in their outlook and scope.

RCS never seriously examined this project and all of its ramifications. They were totally committed to the breach and spent three or more years examining, for example, some of the changes which would occur to water levels behind the Dam. The majority of their efforts were focused on spreading their propaganda. Many organizations jumped on the bandwagon and wrote letters of support. After re-reading some of the statements from their supporters, I can only conclude that most of it was just wishful thinking.

"…the removal of the dam creates an opportunity for a ‘win-win" for the river, dam owner and community at large" (Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Roy Hoagland). The EXACT same 40 word sentence, word for word, was also in a letter from Thomas Jefferson Trout Unlimited, Alan Franklin. If you find this plagiarism too hard to believe just ask me to fax you a copy of these letters. As I write this, I am not sure what to make of this rather unexpected finding but I would say that I smell a fish, however, there are none.

"Removal of the Dam will increase safe boating …for those who launch at Darden Towe Park..Partial removal will allow for historical interpretation…." (Albemarle County Parks and Rec.)


But the shad. Who could not be for fish? I love fish. By volume or length, how much of an increase in the total ecosystem will the shad have if they migrate a few more miles upstream from the Dam? Since the shad start their migration in the ocean and swim up the Bay, then the James and then the Rivanna to reach us, are we really helping that much to extend their possible journey two more miles? If they spawn past their point of insertion (Darden Towe Park), then why are they not swimming up to the Woolen Mills Dam now? The RCS’ report states an increase of between 16 and 22 miles of river habitat MAY be obtainable.

Since 1994, 1,270,000 shad fry have been added to the Rivanna (at Crofton,Fluvanna County) below the Woolen Mills. This means that shad should have been migrating up to the Dam starting around 1999. But there are no reports of shad coming upstream. What happens if the shad NEVER come up as far as the Woolen Mills? Is there a bond posted to assure that the Dam wil be rebuilt?

At a Shad Watch web site,  it was stated " that a flow of 14,000 cfs ….is good for shad migration and a flow of greater than 30,000 cfs will stop the shad migration. "  Thus, a mere doubling in river volume can make migration conditions unsuitable. I don’t  know the exact rate of flow in the River but after the Dam breach the River was dangerously low. A few days later, heavy rains swelled the River to at least ten times the previous velocity. One of the consequences of global warming will be increasing periods of near drought conditions followed by intermittent , very heavy rain falls. This new phenomenon will not be conducive to fish migration. The reality is that even if the shad do try to migrate as far as the Woolen Mills, there is a good chance that during any May-July period the River flow may not be suitable for fish migration. This may only get worse in the coming decades.

If the shad did migrate this far, there is a high probability many would end up in the polluted Moore’s Creek. Cleaning up Moore’s creek would have been a project worthy of the RCS efforts and fund-raising abilities. But cleaning a stream is  un-glamorous, complex and arduous.

The RCS has enjoyed a near propaganda monopoly on this project and their web site touts many supposed advantages of the Dam removal but nary a reference to objections of neighbors, possible negative un-intended consequences or any reference to a true Environmental Impact Statement. This is an important point. One woud think that the RCS would want to have a very thorough environmental impact statement performed because:

1. It would be the right thing to do,

2. It would demonstrate that they were being scientific and objective and

3. It would reduce their liability.

They claim that the Dam is dangerous and allude to the Dam being responsible for deaths. There have been two deaths near the Dam that I know of: one was a suicide and one happened when a drunk college kid on the Fourth of July who was at an un-supervised party at my neighbors,  jumped into a very high river to show off in front of the girls. The Dam was not the cause of these unfortunate incidents.


They said how the Dam would reduce flooding in the neighborhood and park. The impact of removing 10,800 cubic feet of Dam stone is to accommodate a flood water volume of 81,000 additional gallons. This will only reduce the height of the flood surge along the River banks  from the Dam site upstream one mile by 0.00293 feet. The effect may be slightly greater since there is less water in the system at the beginning of a flood but this will be negligible. Developement in Albemarle County over the next two years will negate any small reduction in flood volume and thus exposure.


They said it will increase River recreation and access for all. I don’t see how. Right now as I write this, the River seems to be unusable by all but the most determined kayakers at least above the Dam (remains). I met one canoeist who was walking his canoe through the River. One of the selling points was that boaters and fishermen would no longer park in front of our homes but instead put in at the Riverside Park. I don’t see how this is possible. It is a shear 7-9′ drop now from the park to the river. There is hardly any water and one is immediately confronted by rocks and dead trees, rusted car fenders and the like. After a recent rain, the canoeists were still parking in front of our homes and putting in below the Dam site. (PHOTO. note: all photos were taken by the same camera at the same setting.) There was no convenient access at the Park. The RCS says that a canoe ramp is the responsibility of the City but the City has no such plans to build a ramp which is the only way canoeists will choose to put-in at the park.


Could the RCS have picked a worse time to empty the community’s emergency water supply (for fire-fighting and city landscpaing needs)? I am guessing that the timing was more related to contractor’s convenience and obligations of contracts than ecological or community concerns. Of course, there was no ecological arguement to breach at this particular date but I doubt if the RCS ever paused to consider that , indeed, there may be a more appropriate time to breach an urban dam than in the middle of a severe drought warning.  And where was this much publized permit to breach the Dam. ("…we have all necessary permits….")? Since the road permit issued by VMRC was posted, it begs the question as to the existence of the actual permit to destroy this historical edifice. We all know that if you want to remodel your bathroom, you better have all your permits on display before you commence any work. My guess is that one or more of the following is true: 1. There never was a permit to destroy the Dam (VMRC said it could not issue a breach permit);  2. The RCS had a permit but because they were so used to getting their way and/or they had such disdain for the community that they felt no need to display it;  3. They displayed it in another place that no one could find. (PHOTO).

turtles, permit, canoeists

The Dam was not coming down as one observor opined…it was leaking but due to the block construction this did not threaten its stability as it would a concrete dam and did little to effect either upstream or downstream life. The leaking was a maintenance concern of the owners but if the Dam was "coming down" then a quarter of a million dollars could have been recycled into other productive projects.

7 generations of fishermen and women have learned  and loved to fish and at the Woolen Mills Dam. But no more. On a walk in the River on Sept 2nd, I saw absolutely no fish save some minnows. There used to be an abundance of fish. There are reports of some fish in deep pockets of water below the Dam site but the change in the fish population for the worse is startling. On a river walk to the confluence of Moore’s creek, the River is narrower and deeper but there were no fish.

As of Sept. 9th there was still a large grouping of rocks left by RCS between the remains of the Dam. This is a dangerous obstacle to kayakers who may not see this during the next high water period. Why has this not been removed? And where is Marty Albert, Pat Punch, Michelle Matiolli, Tim San Jule, Robbie Savage, Jason Halbert, Angus Murdock et al (RCS report page 12)? Why aren’t they out in the River arm in arm cleaning up all the rusted auto parts, cans, bottles, string, golf balls, fishing line and sharp plastic remains littering the bottom of the now shallow river? I thought they wanted to make the River safer for people.

If this was a real estate settlement, the purchaser would be refusing to close until the sellers cleaned up the mess they made. At least in real estate we have safeguards such as escrows and title insurance but in the world of dam breaching there are no such civilized inventions. Why didn’t the Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission require a performance bond to insure that the RCS would follow through on all its promises and especially to clean up the mess they have created?


 On the Hook blog site,there is a dialogue with a supporter about how this will reduce the mosquito problem at our end of the neighborhood. ("…There will probably be more birds, mammals and other species of fish. Hopefully there will also be less standing water and so fewer mosquitoes….").This makes absolutely no sense. Since the Dam breach, there are now numerous mosquito breeding sites within the River itself created by the sand, silt and rock islands exposed by the low water. (PHOTO). Mosquitoes are not only an obvious and growing nuisance but also a public health threat.


The River behind the Dam (144 acre-feet) was a very unique ecosystem, perhaps the most distinctive stretch along the entire Rivanna. For 180 years this ecosystem evolved as a nurturing habitat for geese, beavers, herons, turtles etc. (PREVIOUS PHOTO) Once I was swimming with a deer who was crossing the River. This area of the River was much more complex than any other stretch. Migratory geese would stop at the lake for a much-needed rest along their arduous journey. They just pass by now. This has all been destroyed. The complexity of the entire ecosystem has been reduced and when complexity is reduced so is stability. What we now have is a less stable ecosystem. This stretch of the River is now mostly devoid of life and completely stripped of its richness and uniqueness. It is not a casual statement to declare that silent spring has returned.

The Rivanna has not been returned to the way it used to be unfortunately, either. 180 years ago, there was no reservoir upstream, 15% of Albemarle County was not covered by impermeable surfaces and the River was narrower and navigable. It must have looked and felt much different.

I used to sit for hours and enjoy the abundant wildlife. Within any one hour I would be delighted with a dozen or so wildlife sightings. So far, after many visits to the river, I rarely see a living thing. But most shocking of all, the birds seem to be gone. I did not expect to see a reduction in local bird activity. I did see one flock of geese approach from the south-west and begin to turn up River as they would do almost hourly before. They pulled away at the last minute.  I would always see my two favorite turtles sunning on their submerged branch.   (PREVIOUS PHOTO) I hope they relocated to a safe spot but I doubt they can now find an environment as sheltering as they enjoyed before.

The River was my  (and others) church. It was a holy place. If it is still a church, it is a church stripped of its stained glass windows, altar, incense, icons and pulpit. It is a church in name only. This stretch of the River was once beautiful beyond belief. It is now hideous. The creation of beauty is more often than not, an indicator of "right works". There is no beauty. (PHOTO). I had two visitors from the Czech Republic Sept. 3rd. They had absolutely no agenda but they had visited the River four months ago. All they could say was:  "this is so sad" and "this hardly looks like a river."

Frank Lloyd Wright taught us at Fallingwaters that just the sound of a waterfall instantly connects us to nature. At Fallingwaters, the waterfall was hidden but could always be heard. We have lost that auditory, constant connection to nature now. The river is a canyon echoing the shouts of the kids upstream adjacent to the park.

Interestingly, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation states that "The beauty, recreation and history of the Rivanna River are well respected and shared today by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation" (Kat Imhoff, 6/20/2003). Have they seen what has happened to the beauty, history and recreation of the River? "The Foundation fully supports a STUDY of the proposed breaching…" (same letter)

Page 9 of the RCS report states "The Committee is compiling information regarding …land ownership, land values……..(and) Sharing this information with all affected (sic) parties…." As one of the 4 effected  property owners, I was not given any information about how this project changes land values. I wonder what an appraiser would think of this change in property aesthetics and thus values? I was told that I should be happy as I would have more land after the Dam breach. But there is no additional land (PHOTO).

With every new trip to the River, I feel more and more like a crime scene investigator.


The River quality is also now worse not better. The natural oxygenation system which was the waterfalls at the Dam has now been destroyed. There is much less dissolved oxygen in the River below the site of the Dam. The River needs dissolved oxygen to overcome the pollution from Moore’s creek entering the River system. D.O. levels are one of the fundamentals measurements of river health. On 9/7/07, WVIR TV reported that 300 fish were found dead upstream due to lack of D.O. in the Rivanna.

But the RCS is going to plant trees. Trees are great; who would not be for trees? I love trees. So all will be well. You can plant trees in a flood plain but I don’t see how you can plant trees in a flood-way and expect them to survive. Planting trees in the flood-way is like parking a lawn chair on Interstate 64 at midnight. It may survive a while but it is only a matter of time until  it will be destroyed by the flow. Anyone who has seen the River during a large storm knows the scouring force the River has. Additionally, the debris swept downstream will help to destroy any young trees trying to take root. Only if we have no storms for ten years or so, will real trees have a chance to establish themselves. Some sort of grass planted along the banks would make more sense and do more to stabilize the edges.


I was approached by three of the Dam breach proponents including the owner. I told all of them about what happened in the 1980’s before the Riverside Park fence was installed. In those days, roving gangs of kids (not a racial incident as one blogger claimed)  would invade our backyards in the early mornings of the summer and destroy personal property and shout obscenities at the top of their lungs. This only stopped when the fence was built and together with the natural obstacle of the River, created an impenetrable barrier. My (and others) sense of security and privacy was returned and we have had few if any problems like this since. Now, once again, kids can help themselves to our backyards by simply walking around the fence.

Homeowners hold most dear a sense of privacy and security that comes with their dwellings. If you are reading this and are a homeowner, ask yourself how you would feel if some outsider came into your home and bulldozed your backyard fence and then left saying it was time to go play with his kids. I shared with those three my concerns (which apparently had never occurred to them) and was given their word in all three cases that my concerns would be addressed. Nothing at all has been done. A fence extension cannot work as it would be in the flood-way and thus destroyed during the next storm. It is probably against some law to build a metal fence in a flood-way. At the very least it would be a danger to those downstream when it broke loose. This is the best suggestion they could give me at the time: extending the fence into the River!  I am still open to hearing what ideas the RCS has in mind to minimize or eliminate private property owners concerns.

In the RCS budget for "Ecological and Social Analysis, including legal questions" $5,000 was proposed but only $1,000 was spent."


If the Woolen Mills Dam is the Heart of the community then the Woolen Mills Chapel is its Soul. If the Chapel was alive it would be crying for its lost brother. Destroying the Dam indicts the Woolen Mills Chapel. The best arguments for keeping the Woolen Mills Chapel have now been weakened by the Dam breach. The Chapel is historically significant and adds beauty to the community. These two arguments were insufficient to save the Dam. In a city in desperate need of affordable and moderate income home sites, the under-utilized Chapel occupies a prime piece of real estate. Having a hard-to-maintain Chapel used only 2 hours per week is not the highest and best use for this corner acreage. Affordable housing is to the Chapel site what shad migration was to the Dam.

But while the Dam was as vulnerable as the Buddhist monuments of Bamyan in central Asia,  the Chapel will certainly enjoy more due process if and when its existence is threatened. During a recent removal project, a neighbor’s old shed enjoyed more due process than the Dam was ever given. However, should it ever come to pass that an alternative use of this site should be debated, the specter of the Woolen Mills Dam destruction will certainly make it harder to morally justify the continued existence of the Chapel which we all love. So far Heart zero, Soul one.

In hockey we have a saying when there is a flourish of effort with unintended results: "Too much Swedish and not enough Finnish."  the RCS is looking more and more like the blond Scandinavians but I will be monitoring their Finnish transformation for the next decade and not let them forget the consequences of their ill-conceived actions.


Oh, the money. The most compelling reason for the Dam breach is that there are new laws imposing more liabilities and maintenance responsibilities on owners of larger Dams. (RCS report page 6, Code of Virginia, 10.1-604).  This would cost money. This is the underlying reason why this project went ahead. The Dam is privately owned (page 10 of RCS report).  The shad argument raised the quarter of a million dollars that the owners would have otherwise paid to have the Dam breached privately. It is too bad that it had to hide behind the shad argument  and the touted, secondary benefits of a dam breach. They’re looking weaker and weaker every day. All in all, a sub-optimum performance by the RCS  an organization lulled to sleep by its own propaganda. With all their resources they could have done a better job of harmonizing all the diverse elements in a very complex situation.

Roger L. Voisinet, M.En.


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