Columbia Dam
The Columbia Dam This outdated dam impedes migratory fish from reaching their historic spawning grounds. © The Nature Conservancy

Stories in New Jersey

A Tale of Two Fishes: Removing the Columbia Dam

We're helping migratory fish, like the iconic American shad, reach their their historic spawning grounds by removing outdated dams.

In Dickens’ fictional A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” But in The Nature Conservancy’s real-life “Tale of Two Fishes,” things are clearly on the up side for American shad and trout—as well as recreational paddlers and many of the 17 million people who get their drinking water from the Delaware River.

A team of partners led by The Nature Conservancy has succeeded in removing the Columbia Dam, an 18-foot high, 300-foot long barrier that has for more than a century degraded water quality and blocked fish passage in the Paulins Kill, the third largest New Jersey tributary to the Delaware. 

It is a special kind of satisfaction to know that American shad will no longer ‘bump their noses' on the Columbia Dam when they return to spawn and that cleaner water will be entering the Delaware.

State Director, New Jersey Chapter

The Columbia Dam was constructed in the early 1900’s for the purposes of ice harvesting and power generation for two local towns. Over time its role in both became greatly diminished, and instead it impounded stagnant water, and impeded migratory fish and kayakers. The dam’s effects were so negative that it was ranked in the top 5% of all dams prioritized for removal on the East Coast in an analysis by The Nature Conservancy and the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

The dam removal process began in 2014, when The Nature Conservancy brought together a group of like-minded expert organizations, including New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, New Jersey Department of Fish and Wildlife, US Fish and Wildlife Service, American Rivers and Princeton Hydro, to begin work on all aspects of the very complex project, including engineering, design, permitting and fundraising. 

Fast forward to summer 2018, when on-the-ground changes took shape in rapid succession. In June, the remnant of a small, failed dam downstream from the larger structure was completely removed. In July, a temporary road was constructed, and heavy equipment moved into place. And on August 3, 2018, the first notch, a cut thirty feet wide and five feet deep, was made in the Columbia Dam.

Water began to flow more naturally for the first time in 109 years!

Columbia Dam Removal The Nature Conservancy celebrates the beginning of the removal of the Columbia Dam.

The dam removal process will take several months, and when the structure is completely gone engineers will “riverscape” that stretch of water—tactics like replanting the banks and adding rocks strategically to create small rapids—to give the Paulins Kill a boost in returning to its natural state. 

As for the second fish species in our tale…

The Nature Conservancy wanted to replace the clean energy previously generated by the dam and found a creative way to do it with additional fish benefits. We partnered with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife to design a plan for solar panels to be installed over the outdoor race ponds at the state’s nearby Pequest Fish Hatchery, which has been struggling to protect young trout from a bacterial disease spread by predatory birds.The solar panels will act as a barrier to predatory birds and will protect the young trout, while simultaneously generating clean energy exceeding that produced by the dam. 

Kayaking the Delaware River

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Removing the dam and restoring the natural river habitat will result in a domino effect of benefits, for shad, trout and other wildlife, and for people, who will have cleaner drinking water and enhanced hiking, fishing, and boating access—without losing a single watt of clean energy generation.

This is a huge accomplishment and milestone in our campaign to protect and restore The Real Nature of New Jersey!

Together, we can secure clean water for all people without sacrificing the environment. The Nature Conservancy is fostering innovations in technology, collaborating with communities to use resources more efficiently and promoting policies that enable sustainability.