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Embrey Dam just a memory
Two years after Embrey Dam was breached, Rappahannock River and its wildlife are recovering

 Remnants of the Rappahannock's crib dam abutment (left) and a navigational lock, both from the mid-1800s, were preserved on the river's Stafford shore after two dams were removed.
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Date published: 2/23/2006

By RUSTY DENNEN

Two years ago today, Army divers blasted a hole in Embrey Dam, paving the way for the removal of the structure and beginning a new, hopeful chapter in the history of the Rappahannock River.

As scientists had predicted prior to the breach, the river is healing, but some parts of the process may take many years.

Soon, American and hickory shad, herring, alewife and striped bass will return on their annual spawning runs--a main reason the derelict dam was breached and removed.

John Odenkirk, fish biologist in the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' Fredericksburg office, said yesterday that results to date have been encouraging.

Scientists had expectations, but no guarantees on how the fish would respond.

"We were thrilled when, during the first spring migration, we had all the target species above the dam," Odenkirk said. One early sampling was especially exciting--an adult female American shad was captured.

While hickory shad are plentiful on the Rappahannock, protected American shad remain rare. To coincide with the dam removal, millions of baby American shad have been stocked over the past five years.

There were some concerns that few migratory fish would venture through the 130-foot-long breach in 2004. But electrofishing surveys that March and April showed large numbers of hickory shad, for example, had moved through what was left of the dam.

Numbers were even better last spring, after the rest of the 22-foot-high concrete structure was removed. It exposed remnants of historic canal locks along the Fredericksburg and Stafford shores.

Finished in 1910, Embrey Dam was built to provide water to Embrey Power Plant, several miles down river.

Before Embrey Dam, a wooden crib dam, about 10 yards upstream, had blocked fish migration since the mid-1800s.

So the river has a lot of catching up to do.

"The intervening two years have progressed as expected. It's going to take time for those species to reach abundance [upstream] to where they are very noticeable," Odenkirk said.

Another surprising finding: Significant numbers of 6- to 8-inch yearling striped bass are turning up in surveys above the dam, as far upriver as Kelly's Ford on the Rappahannock, and Eley's Ford on its Rapidan River tributary.

"It seems those little stripers are really moving and dispersing themselves quite nicely," Odenkirk said.


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A limited number of "River Runs Free: Breaching the Rappahannock's Embrey Dam," a 48-page book the newspaper produced on the removal project, are available at The Free Lance-Star for $15. A portion of the proceeds goes to the Friends of the Rappahannock.

Photos of the dam's removal are available for purchase online at the reprint site on fredericksburg.com/.