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Fate of 100-year-old dam in Southern Indiana’s Silver Creek still uncertain

Aprile Rickert
Louisville Public Media
An Indiana judge is considering whether to block removal of a low-head dam in Silver Creek in Southern Indiana.

An Indiana administrative law judge is considering whether to block the removal of a low-head dam in Silver Creek, after the City of New Albany challenged its removal, citing environmental, historical and recreational concerns.

In June 2021, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) granted a permit to EcoSystems Connections Institute, LLC to remove the six-foot-high dam near Providence Way to make way for a recreational “blueway” along the creek — part of the overarching plans for the upcoming Origin Park.

EcoSystems is contracted by River Heritage Conservancy (RHC), the group in charge of the park project.

Shortly after the permit was issued, the city filed a petition for administrative review with the state’s Natural Resources Commission Division of Hearings.

Oral arguments were held last month, and the parties filed briefs on the challenge to temporarily stay the permit last week.

“There are many outstanding issues that the City of New Albany believes should be resolved before any attempts to remove the historic dam are made,” Mayor Jeff Gahan said in a Nov. 18 news release.

The planned roughly 5-mile blueway would allow for paddling from the Blackiston Mill dam in Clarksville to the Ohio River.

New Albany argues in the petition that there is lack of evidence to support DNR’s approval of the permit, including no hydrologic or hydraulic testing done to evaluate how removal of the dam would affect flood potential. They also argued there was no thorough evidence on how dam removal would impact fish, wildlife and plants.

The city has also pushed for the historical preservation of the dam, which was built in the early 1900s near what was then Glenwood Park.

Greg Sekula, Southern Regional Director for Indiana Landmarks, said in a Nov. 4 letter to Gahan that Indiana Landmarks “supports efforts to preserve” the dam and “encourages” the parties to come to an agreement for it to stay.

RHC representatives have said the dam’s removal is necessary to increase safety on the blueway. But RHC communications director Vern Eswine said even if the dam removal is blocked, that’s just one piece and won’t slow the overarching park plans.

“We can’t connect that and make it safe until that’s removed, but it does not impact the park,” Eswine said.

Potential risks posed by low-head dams

Though not speaking about this particular dam, Mary Moran, director of Emergency Management and Preparedness for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, said all low-head structures have the potential to be deadly. After certain rain events, increased water flowing over a dam can create a hydraulic roller, which can trap even a fit and experienced kayaker or swimmer — even if they’re wearing safety gear.

“There are days when one of these structures could be completely no danger at all,” she said. “And then you can have a rain event upstream, and this roller can be created without much warning. So a lot of [low-head dams] definitely have the potential to have that risk associated with them.”

The state has hosted safety awareness campaigns for people who engage in recreation on waterways. They’ve also helped municipalities remove or alter low-head dams to decrease risks.

Moran didn’t say all low-head dams should be removed or even mitigated, but that it’s a case-by-case study of whether they can “produce that hydraulic roller in a flooding event or a heavy rain event.”

New Albany officials said in their June 2021 challenge and in recent statements that they want to negotiate with RHC on alternatives to a complete dam removal.

Gahan said the city is “prepared to make the dam more safe,” if that’s the concern.

“We have the ability to do that, and we'd be more than willing to do that,” Gahan told Louisville Public Media. “And at that point, we'd have the best of both worlds. The dam would be able to stay, you'd still be able to canoe there, the water levels would stay consistent to what they've been for the last 100 plus years, and it would be a win-win for everyone.”

In written statements, city officials have said they have concerns about potential contaminants being released if the dam is removed and worry that it could reduce overall water levels, cutting down the number of days people can be in the water.

They also said it would affect ongoing recreational projects in the city. New Albany has separate plans to open the waterway for paddling and other recreation at Silver Creek Landing, including a recently built pathway to the dam area and upcoming canoe launch points just past the dam.

“The City of New Albany has invested both time and resources into the development of the area for nearly a decade, including the nearly-finished Silver Creek Landing and Providence Way improvements, of which removal of the dam could compromise,” officials said in a statement.

Next steps in challenge to block dam removal

During a special meeting Nov. 15, the New Albany City Council unanimously passed a resolution to meet with RHC officials for mediation. A judge had already denied a motion about two weeks earlier by the city to order mediation with EcoSystems and to include RHC. The judge said in the order that the parties could still engage in settlement negotiations outside of court.

Following New Albany’s resolution, RHC issued a public statement declining the mediation.

“River Heritage Conservancy has always welcomed and provided many opportunities for the City of New Albany to engage on this project despite what is implied within this resolution,” it reads, in part.

The statement also said RHC is not a party listed in the litigation and “does not see a need nor a benefit from entering into mediation" with New Albany, EcoSystems and DNR.

The conservancy said they believe that “removing such dams has been proven beneficial to both the safety of those using the creek to fish, canoe and kayak, as well as scientifically improving the quality of the water and aquatic life, both above and below the dam, long term.”

“Going forward, we hope that this matter can be resolved quickly and that in the days and years to come, we can all work together, in cooperation, to build a park that celebrates all aspects that Jeffersonville, Clarksville and New Albany enjoy as part of Ohio River history,” RHC officials said in the statement.

The judge could rule any day on whether to temporarily block the permit to remove the dam as the case continues. A final hearing on the permit is expected in late April.

Coverage of Southern Indiana is funded, in part, by Samtec, Inc. and the Hazel & Walter T. Bales Foundation.

Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.

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