By Judy Althaus
At protected sites in the Florida panhandle, two rare Steephead streams once again flow freely.
Little trees are planted near the nettings that wrap creek banks like a mummy. New native vegetation pops up. A scientist takes inventory of the stream’s fish, crayfish and insects and smiles.
These are the sites of something rare: dam removal project in Florida!
In 2007 the Kelley Branch project set a remarkable example of successful restoration among freshwater environments – among the Earth’s most endangered, least protected of natural systems.
“Kelley Branch proved that streams can recover quickly when dams are removed,” said Director of Freshwater Conservation Steve Herrington, who led the Conservancy team.
“It’s like opening a door. Nature can flush both upstream and downstream.”
Flowing through the Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, the stream is a tributary of the Apalachicola River – Florida’s largest river, and one of the largest in the United States. Only one year after its restoration, the Conservancy and our agency partners began to marvel at Kelley Branch’s dramatic revival.
For the first time in 50 years, this tributary is now fully alive.
Previous landowners had installed a 12-foot tall earthen dam on Kelly Branch, resulting in a 20-acre recreational impoundment that inundated former ravines. Along with a culvert and dirt-fill road, it significantly damaged this extraordinary property.
The Conservancy designed and engineered a fastidious restoration plan, and is now carefully monitoring progress. See a slideshow.
Following the success at Kelley Branch, the Conservancy worked with several conservation partners on a similar project at Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park. “Puddin’ Head Lake” existed where no lake should be – created by an impoundment that engulfed over 90 percent of a rare steephead stream crossing the park. In 2010, the Conservancy helped restore that habitat as nature intended.
We are now engaged in monitoring and post-restoration work at the site to assure the stream recovers as planned. Only one channel away from a healthy population of the federally threatened Okaloosa darter, the newly recovered stream may eventually provide habitat for that and other rare species.
Steephead streams and ravines are among the rarest of freshwater habitats and those at Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve are of particularly high quality. Clear, cool streams seep up through deep sandy soils, forming steep-walled, amphitheater-shaped headwaters that provide a unique microclimate for rare plants and animals.
Most steephead streams exist in Florida, although similar systems may be present in Georgia and other nearby states. The Conservancy projects provide a rare opportunity to assess these and similar streams. Based on the success of these first two projects, the Conservancy proposes to remove dams and reconnect waters at similar sites.
Hundreds of Florida’s streams are blocked by thousands of dams and culverts – many of which no longer serve a purpose. These structures fundamentally impact all aspects of streams and rivers. Fish and other aquatic wildlife simply can’t get around, over or through them to complete their life cycles. Dams also subtantially alter freshwater habitats both upstream and downstream, including nearby plant communities.
Obviously, rivers aren’t just for wildlife. But a fish community is considered the primary indicator of a river’s health.
The water people drink and use to grow food is all drawn from increasingly threatened freshwater resources. It is estimated that within 25 years, half the world’s population could have difficulty finding freshwater for drinking and crops. Many rivers – in Florida and around the world – have been altered to support human needs, and dams and culverts create significant damage.
Climate change presents another serious challenge to rivers. Scientists expect changing water patterns to include larger storms, and longer droughts followed by flooding. The seasonal pattern of rainfall may also be affected.
One Conservancy goal is to improve a river’s resiliency, or its ability to absorb change and persist over time. When rivers stay whole and connected, and stressors are reduced, they remain stronger and more able to adapt normally to the changes that flow their way.
Florida’s freshwater systems are under siege, and the Conservancy is a leader in the fight to protect them for people and nature. It all boils down to this: Our survival may depend upon it.
*Conservancy scientists expect to publish a full report of the Kelley Branch dam removal and restoration in 2011.
Judy Althaus is a conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy in Florida.
**The Kelley Branch restoration project was completed with funding and support from the Conservancy's conservation partners. The Elizabeth Ordway Dunn Foundation and The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided funding for biological surveys and the development of the technical restoration plans, while the The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission provided substantial funding for the on-the-ground restoration and continued project management.
Funding for Puddin’ Head was provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Additional in-kind contributions were provided by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and The Nature Conservancy.