The Roanoke River

The Roanoke River begins as a swift mountain stream in  Virginia and journeys some 400 miles, slowing and broadening, before finally emptying into North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound.

The Roanoke River is vital to people living near its shores. Early settlers arrived by boat and traded goods up and down the river. Flooding made the ground fertile for crops. As the towns and their economies grew, thanks in large part to the river, they became centers of culture and trade. This past is kept alive in the towns’ Colonial homes, historical sites and history museums. Today, tourists come to hike, hunt, fish, birdwatch, boat and to camp on the unique Paddle Trail platforms. They also come to experience the cultural, historical and biological richness of the Roanoke. 

Contained here is the largest and least disturbed bottomland hardwood forest in the southeast, and some of the most unique habitat and vegetation in the state.

Plant and animal species have adapted to thousands of years of flooding on the Roanoke River. Within the last half-century, however, the river has been significantly shaped by three dams that sit near the Virginia-North Carolina border: John H. Kerr Dam, Gaston Dam and Roanoke Rapids Dam.

For many years, large amounts of water were held in the lakes above the dams for long periods of time. This curbed flooding downriver while drastically increasing the length of time that flows were released downstream. This management approach flooded areas upstream of the dams—Kerr Lake campgrounds were often uninhabitable and eroded beaches and shores had to be restored at a public cost—as the dams filled up to the brim, and downstream the the long periods of released flow were hurting hardwood trees and the wildlife that rely on them. 

To help mend the problems created from artificial flow, The Nature Conservancy began working with the owners and operators of the three dams—Dominion Generation in 1993 and later with the US Army Corps of Engineers.

After more than two decades of work, conservation partners celebrated two monumental management agreements in the spring of 2016. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a new water control plan for Kerr Lake, which more closely mimics natural river flows—reducing the flooding around Kerr Lake and Dominion Resources and the duration of flood events for the 137 miles of river downstream. Dominion Generation, which manages dams at Lake Gaston and Roanoke Rapids, announced changes that will significantly help reduce downstream flooding.

In addition to the many environmental benefits, the new water management plans will benefit people. This is especially true in the wake of storms. Under previous management, water was held in the lakes until they were just feet away from the top of their dams. When a big storm came, they filled up rapidly and water was released quickly. With the change, there will be higher releases of water earlier in the process so as to keep the lakes at a lower level. This will give the lakes higher flood capacity for storms and shorten the duration of flooding downstream.

Return to learn more about the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound >

GET TEXT UPDATES*