By the banks of the birthplace of American fly-fishing, backhoes are demolishing a dam that for nearly a century has blocked the easy flow of the Neversink River.
The Cuddebackville dam in the Catskills is being pulled down by the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a $2.2-million project that is among dozens of dam demolition efforts underway this year across the country. The Corps of Engineers, long the nation’s preeminent dam-builder, is learning to become its dam-eradicator also.
Never before has any dam in New York state been demolished solely for sake of the environment. In the muddy aftermath of hurricane-related flooding last week, which swelled the Neversink flow to 50 times normal, a construction crew continued to dismantle the low-lying, 107-foot dam. A third of it has been torn down so far.
Already, the fish are swimming freely.
“We have the dam breached; we have fish past the dam for the first time,” in decades said aquatic ecologist Colin Apse at the Conservancy’s Neversink River project office.
The Cuddebackville dam is among 60 being torn down this year in 14 states, including California, as part of a growing movement to clear rivers of defunct barriers, according to American Rivers, an environmental group in Washington, D.C.
More than 77,000 dams straddle streams nationwide; at least 7,000 in New York state alone.
Few waterways, however, so neatly illustrate the paradox of coexistence between nature and urban life as the Neversink, a tributary of the Delaware River that flows about 90 miles north of New York City.
No other stream in the 13,000-square miles of the Delaware River watershed is so pristine or occupies such a special place in the history of angling. Yet it is also heavily integrated into the plumbing of a major metropolitan region.
Every time a New Yorker takes a bath, they take a dip in the Neversink. Every glass of Manhattan tap water, every sprinkle from a Staten Island showerhead, every Brooklyn toilet flush, begins, in part, with a chilly rivulet clear as gin cascading from the Neversink River.
The headwaters of the Neversink are cached upstream in a 35-billion-gallon reservoir and then channeled through the world’s longest continuous underground tunnel to become the single cleanest source of water for the city of 8 million.
Even so, the waters below the reservoir are hailed as one of the world’s finest wild trout fisheries. There, anglers in the 1840s developed the lures and other techniques that set fly-fishing in the New World apart from the more placid practices of Europe.
Its swift currents nurture brown trout, rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, alewife and shad. The world’s healthiest population of endangered dwarf wedge mussels lives below the dam. Osprey and eagles nest in the overhanging trees.
The Cuddebackville dam, 40 miles downstream from the reservoir, was built in 1915 to feed local canals for barge traffic and to generate hydropower. It was abandoned in 1945.
By tearing it down, the Conservancy and the Corps are striving to balance often competing worlds.
“Instead of turning back the clock to Christopher Columbus, we are trying to balance a healthy environment against expanding human needs,” said George Schuler, director of the Conservancy’s Delaware River program.
“We are not going to have a truly natural river, but we will get conditions that are good enough that all the native species can thrive,” Schuler said. “If we can make it more ecologically sustainable, this will be one of the few places [in the East] that really is a healthy, intact functioning river.”
Indeed, when workers are finished hauling away the last of the dam debris, they will have opened an additional 40 miles of the river to the seasonal traffic jams of migrating shad, long denied access to their historical spawning ground.
But New York’s water supply reservoir upstream will stay in place, Schuler said. Consequently, the Neversink will remain a river of compromise.
Its natural ebb and flow will continue to be tempered by the intermittent dam releases and the demand for drinking water in New York. Nor can the other effects of 200 years of human habitation be so easily overcome. Anglers are warned that their catch may be toxic, because of mercury contamination.
In a modest way, several environmental activists said, the effort along the Neversink to balance the metropolitan thirst for clean water against the needs of the environment echoes a debate coming to a head in Northern California over the fate of the Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite National Park, arguably the most controversial dam in the United States.
The Hetch Hetchy Valley was flooded in the 1920s when the Tuolumne River was dammed to create a reservoir for the San Francisco Bay Area.
On Monday, the Environmental Defense group in Sacramento expects to release a 300-page engineering analysis detailing cost-effective ways to drain and restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley, while continuing to supply the Bay Area with high-quality water and power from the Tuolumne River.
Activists hope the restoration could form part of a $3.2-billion water system overhaul that San Francisco is already planning.
To be sure, the headwaters of the Neversink do not conceal natural wonders comparable to the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which is said to rival Yosemite itself in scenic beauty. Instead, they conceal the ruins of Bittersweet, a village submerged by its rising waters a generation ago.
Even so, the removal of a relatively modest steel-reinforced concrete dam like the Cuddebackville structure is complex, time-consuming and expensive.
This year, engineers detonated 600 tons of explosives to breach the Embrey Dam on Virginia’s Rappahannock River. The endangered mussels that make their home in the habitat of the Neversink, however, called for a more delicate touch.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” said Brian Mulvenna, project manager at the Corp’s five-state Philadelphia district, which supervises the region’s waterways. “The river has to adapt to the changed conditions.”
The conservancy has agreed to monitor stream conditions for five years, to see how the river and the creatures that call it home adjust to the resumption of natural flow.
“This is a great project, simply for the fact that it is being done for environmental reasons,” said Serena McClain, who works at American Rivers. “The Corps spent decades destroying rivers; now it is restoring them.”