Face-lift for Springville Dam?

U.S Army Corps of Engineers Buffalo District, Public Affairs
Published Feb. 6, 2014

Nestled back in the woods in the majestic Town of Springville, NY, stands Springville Dam on Cattaraugus Creek. The dam was once used to generate hydroelectric power for the homes, towns and villages in the area.  Through an environmentally friendly and green initiative the dam has a chance to get a face-lift and turn the hands of time back on the 93 year-old structure.  

Springville Dam is located on Cattaraugus Creek, 34 miles from the mouth of Lake Erie. While this 34-mile reach of Cattaraugus Creek and adjoining tributaries  provide important spawning areas for a number of Lake Erie fish, approximately 70 miles of some of the highest quality fish spawning areas in the watershed exist upstream of the dam. These areas are currently inaccessible to Lake Erie fish species due to the presence of the 40 foot high, 338 foot long Springville Dam.

Under the Great Lakes Fishery and Ecosystem Restoration Authority, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Buffalo District, is working with the project partners: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Erie County.  Together, they have been working on a feasibility study to determine how the dam could be modified so that 70 miles of high quality spawning waters upstream of the dam could be made accessible to native fish species, while continuing to block invasive species. 

“The benefits of this project, once completed, will have a significant positive impact on the Cattaraugus Creek ecosystem and sediment budget while continuing to block the migration of sea lamprey,” said Geoff Hintz, Buffalo District Project Manager.  “A number of alternatives were analyzed.  The preferred alternative being considered is to remove a section of the existing dam [completely down to the river bed]. A 10 foot sea lamprey barrier would be installed where the dam is removed and a fish ramp constructed on one side of the barrier.  The ramp would have a stop-log barrier with a jump pool and a fish trap at the upstream end.  The stop-log barrier would remain in place during the lamprey migratory season and divert fish into a trap for sorting.  Sea lamprey would be removed and not allowed to access waters upstream of the dam while all other species would be allowed to pass upstream.   Outside of the lamprey migratory season, the stop-log would be removed and all fish species allowed to move upstream.”

Until the mid 1980’s, dam operators opened sluice gates annually to allow accumulated sediments to pass downstream.  The last time the gates were opened was in 1995 and since that time the dam pool has filled with sediment. 

“Currently the dam is altering the natural sediment dynamics of Cattaraugus Creek by trapping sediment at the dam pool.  As a result, the creek immediately downstream of the dam is sediment starved; a factor that may contribute to bank erosion and scour,” said Hintz.

By lowering the spillway, sediment would more easily flow downstream allowing the creek to return to a more natural state.  Some advantages of a more natural flow of sediment in the creek are increased spawning habitat downstream of the dam for certain native species of fish, and potential long-term bank stabilization. 

“A primary constraint in conducting this study is to ensure that the invasive sea lamprey will not gain access to the upstream watershed,” said Hintz.

Sea lamprey entered Lake Erie in the 1920s with the opening of the Welland Canal but they were not considered a major fisheries concern until restoration of native lake trout began in the late 1970s.  Sea lamprey attach themselves onto other fish using a suction-cup like mouth, then grind away at the skin of the fish with its sharp tongue to create a wound.  The lamprey’s mouth secretes an anticoagulant, allowing it to suction bodily fluids from the fish.  The host fish usually does not die from one attack but is weakened by the loss of blood and fluids leaving it susceptible to other attacks or disease. 

Currently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trap sea lamprey to monitor their populations in Cattaraugus Creek.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have stated that they would be willing to perform trap and sort activities during the monitoring period of the spring lamprey spawning run.   

During a public meeting in March 2013, a representative from the NYSDEC said, “If this project was successful, this would make the Cattaraugus Creek watershed one of the top fisheries in the northeast.” 

The success of this project cannot yet be measured, but can definitely be called exciting!

Cattaraugus Creek supports a diversity of native fish and highly valued sport-fish that will benefit from increased access to the high quality waters upstream of Springville Dam.  Cattaraugus Creek is one of New York’s largest salmonid fishery tributaries to Lake Erie with runs of steelhead trout, as well as wild brook trout and naturally reproducing populations of brown trout and rainbow trout.  

“To be a part of a project that will provide benefits to the native fish, stream restoration, and improve sediment transportation, yeah, that’s pretty neat.  I can honestly say that this has been one of the most rewarding projects to manage.  Imagine the positive mark this will leave on the Great Lakes for the next generation and the ones after that.    That's something to tell friends and family,” said Hintz