The Risky Side of the River

By: Erin Tate
By: Erin Tate

Not much is left of the McGaheysville Dam. In 1955, Hurricane Hazel swept down the Shenandoah and broke the dam apart.

Now, Larry Mohn of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries says, "It's probably the most hazardous spot on the Shenandoah River."

The dam used to power a hydroelectric plant downstream. Now, all that remains are giant concrete slabs and iron rollers.

Sara Nicholas of the non-profit organization, American Rivers, explains, "People do get caught in the rollers and do drown in these kinds of dams pretty frequently."

Nicholas is part of a nationwide river restoration movement called "Rivers Unplugged." She's working to remove dams like the one in McGaheysville that are no longer serving a purpose.

"This is kind of a historic opportunity. This would be one of the very first dams removed from the state," she says.

The city of Harrisonburg owns the dam. They're considering spending about $300,000 to get rid of it. There have been a few unsuccessful attempts to remove it. Now, Nicholas says it's time to try again because the dam is a huge liability for the city and a hindrance to the health of the river.

A dam stops the normal flow of water and keeps fish from migrating and mating like they should. Plus, the water that catches behind the dam is stagnant and warm, which means it, has less oxygen. And aquatic life can't survive without that.

The dam is one of many river problems concerning this local group of conservationists. Delegate Chris Saxman joined them this week to learn how legislators can better serve Virginia with eco-friendly policies.

"We try to do it in a responsible manner, listen to the people, come out and see it and that's one of the reasons I'm out here today," he said.

The McGaheysville Dam is one of thousands in Virginia that pose a safety hazard. And if Harrisonburg removes it, the city would be spearheading an effort to help humans, wildlife and the future of the Shenandoah River.

To learn more about river issues or to attend the Pure Water Forum's Watershed Roundtable at JMU May 30-31st, log on to

50 North Main Street Harrisonburg, VA 22801 540-433-9191 - Switchboard 540-433- 4028 - Fax 540-433-2700 - News Fax

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