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Breaking barriers: Susquehanna County tears down Oakland Dam

After being obsolete for nearly 17 years, Susquehanna County is demolishing the Oakland Dam. The dam’s end, however, signals a new beginning for local communities – both human and aquatic.

Project Director Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy says her nonprofit, American Rivers, decided to work with local officials to tear down the dam. Hollingsworth-Segedy is the Director of River Restoration for American Rivers' Western Pennsylvania field office.

“It was a hydropower dam for decades. And the dam began to fall into disrepair…in about the 1990s, and by 2006..the river was kind of taking the dam out, and it breached in the center,” says Hollingsworth-Segedy.

The dam has been inactive since 2006, but it is not the only obsolete dam in Pennsylvania, let alone in the country, says Hollingsworth-Segedy.

“We have somewhere over 100,000 dams in the US. And about 75 percent of those are not serving a purpose,” Hollingsworth-Segedy says.

She adds that the dam’s inactivity harms existing aquatic wildlife.

“Even though the dam was broken in the center and water was flowing through…it’s sort of like a fire hose. Y’know, the water flow is concentrated in a small area and that makes it speed up, so that creates what we call a ‘velocity barrier.’ In other words, the water is going so fast that the fish will not come through that. It’s as if the dam was still there,” Hollingsworth-Segedy says.

That velocity barrier limits biodiversity, according to Hollingsworth-Segedy, and can negatively affect water quality. She highlights the importance of fish like darters and shiners to the Susquehanna River ecosystem.

“They are actually really important in the life cycle of freshwater mussels. And you may find those in the river – they look kinda like clams – but they actually provide an ecosystem service benefit. They filter the water better than we can do with even a filtration plant,” says Hollingsworth-Segedy.

Besides protecting the river’s ecosystem, Susquehanna County Commissioner Judy Herschel says that removing the dam protects the lives of those living near the river.

“Flooding that occurs [from the dam] – and it’s been pretty bad flooding…particularly in 2006, in 2011, will be eliminated,” says Herschel.

Herschel says the dam removal will not only protect nearby communities from flooding, but it will also bolster the local economy.

“Up until this point, rafting, canoeing, water sports, are very active just north of us, but because of the dam – the dangers associated with it – we never have been able to capitalize on that,” says Herschel.

While communities near the North Branch of the Susquehanna, like Susquehanna Depot and Lanesboro, gain economic opportunities, Hollingsworth-Segedy reminds residents living downstream that they do not need to worry about changes to local river patterns.

“The dam wasn’t impounding any water. It’s what’s called a ‘low-head dam.’ So, it was raising the water level up so it could come through [the] old power station. So, when the dam breached itself, the water continued to flow. So, there will be no change downstream at all,” Hollingsworth-Segedy says.

After a few setbacks due to inclement weather, the removal is expected to be completed in mid-September. Funding for the dam removal came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, River Bounty, and Susquehanna County.

Isabela Weiss is a storyteller turned reporter from Athens, GA. She is WVIA News's Rural Government Reporter and a Report for America corps member. Weiss lives in Wilkes-Barre with her fabulous cats, Boo and Lorelai.