Dam Removal Changes Ecosystem

  • Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy, of American Rivers, at the site of the former Trafford dam. Photo: Casey Premoshis

  • The dam has been removed from this stream near the shuttered Westinghouse Plant in Trafford, PA. Photo: Casey Premoshis

November 15, 2013
The Allegheny Front’s Jenelle Pifer provided reporting on this story.

Pennsylvania is home to thousands of dams—structures built to hold back water in rivers and streams.  But for most of the past decade, the Commonwealth has topped the list for the most dam removals in any state.  

A prime example is the stream running behind the old Westinghouse plant in Trafford near Pittsburgh.  It used to look a lot more like a lake.

“In fact there was a piece of rope and it made me wonder if people used it as a way to jump in—you know like a rope swing,” says Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy.

Hollingsworth-Segedy, associate director for river restoration with American Rivers, a national nonprofit, advocates for dam removal across Western PA. There are six to seven thousand dams in the state, so it’s a big job.

At Turtle Creek, Hollingsworth-Segedy, recently checked in on the site. It’s a habit of hers whenever she’s in the area. She’s worked on dozens of dam removals, but Trafford is special to her. It was her first project with American Rivers, and a hard-earned victory for the group last year.

“As you can see, we cut the side over there and we’ve taken the dam out and now the stream flows through here,” she says.

Initially the community wasn’t entirely happy about the dam removal. To some, it meant the loss of a fishing spot and a swimming hole. Others say the concrete dam was a historical testament to the industrial past. It was built to provide water for Westinghouse electric, which built fuses and fuse boxes there. The plant is now closed, partially torn down, and considered a brownfield by the state.

The dam was taken out in September. Now some local leaders, like Trafford Mayor Reynold Peduzzi, are excited that recovery of the stream’s health will increase recreational tourism here, like canoeing.

Hollingsworth-Segedy holds up a photo on her iPad to provide a side-by-side comparison.  The “before” side shows the dam, with a twelve-foot pool of murky water behind it. She says the stagnant water would sit getting warm in the sun.

“And with increased temperature, the dissolved oxygen starts to decline. And with the dissolved oxygen declines, it sets forth this whole chain of chemical changes,” she says.

Those changes include increased sediment and contamination. The changes, combined with the urban environment, the stormwater and abandoned mine drainage, have left Turtle Creek officially "impaired", as classified by the Department of Environmental Protection.

It’s hard to believe looking the quickly running water today. Now that the dam is gone, it’s a shallow, tumbling stream.

“The single most important thing we can do for a stream to recover, and for its water quality to improve, is to remove the dam,” says Hollingworth-Segedy.

She climbs down the steep bank to the waters edge. According to Hollingworth-Segedy, the water is cooler than it used to be, and they’re already seeing new life.

“Since the dam has been removed, I have seen blacknose dace. Those and a number of other little minnows coming up through this area. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen fish here, so it was really encouraging,” she says.

The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission is expected to visit the site in the next year to do formal fish surveys. Hollingsworth-Segedy expects dam removals to change, and improve fishing.

She’s busy working to get other dams taken down, and says number is ticking lower year by year.