Columbus Fishermen Skeptical Of Chattahoochee River Dam Breaches
Would removing two dams hurt the river's fishery? Biologists say it should help.
The proposal to breach portions of the Eagle Phenix and City Mills dams along the Chattahoochee River in downtown Columbus was recently approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers division office in Atlanta. The project, which now sits in a planning and specs stage, has some fishermen upset.
“I’m wondering what impact it’s going to have on the fantastic fishery that’s there,” said Joe Wikoff, a bass-tournament pro who targets shoal bass below the Eagle Phenix dam. “To me, if they breach a couple of those dams for whitewater rafting — that’s the push right now — you’re going to be eliminating part of the fishery.”
Both dams sit inside Georgia’s fall-line habitat, a sharp drop in elevation over a few short miles. Only 0.8 miles above the Eagle Phenix dam is the City Mills dam. The dam above City Mills, North Highlands Dam, won’t be breached. From the North Highlands Dam to Eagle Phenix is 2.2 miles. In this stretch of river there is a 55-foot drop in elevation and a collection of underwater bedrock. Breaching the dams would drop the water level, expose the rocks and create shoals.
“It (the breaching) represents a good opportunity for restoration of some valuable fall-line, large-river habitat that is in scarce supply in the state,” said Les Ager, WRD fisheries region supervisor. “That fall-line habitat is so rare in the state that even getting a little bit back is a very significant thing.”
The project’s next stage is to drain the small reservoir between the two dams and allow historical and cultural folks to look at the site while the corps looks at the dams to make their destruction plans.
John Turner is a resident of Columbus and a board member with The Bradley Group. The company’s real-estate division is looking at redeveloping portions of an old textile mill at the Eagle Phenix Dam. He said breaching the dams would improve the view and interest from whitewater rafters.
“(I like) the thought that there could be a free-flowing river with class-two to class-five rapids flowing through the middle of town,” said John.
Dennis Hutto, of Smith Stations, Ala., isn’t too happy that his old fishing waters may turn into a slalom course for kayakers.
“They keep saying that this whitewater rafting is going to jumpstart our economy and become an Olympic sport,” said Dennis. “I’ve got nothing against the kayakers. They have a right to use the river like we do. I’m afraid that with all the kayakers using the river that eventually there’s going to be a limit on fishermen using the river.”
Dennis’s main traffic concern comes during the spring months when linesides leave Lake Eufaula and pile up behind the Eagle Phenix tailrace. Dennis has the Eufaula record for hybrids — a 15-lb., 8-oz. fish that came from the tailrace. He said kayakers coming over the breached dam could make it difficult to fish.
“I’m really optimistic that the conflicts will not be as likely or as severe as a lot of folks are afraid of right now,” said Les Ager.
Les said that while the fish won’t stack up as heavy below the Eagle Phenix Dam, breaching the dams will increase lineside opportunity.
“The removal of these dams will allow that upstream migration of fish in the springtime to still congregate somewhat, but they’ll be spread over a larger area and be accessible to more people,” said Les. “More fishermen can take advantage of that intense springtime fishery.”
John Turner said breaching the two dams will create a new fishery.
“Getting out in the shoals and wading — it’s going to be a different kind of fishing that we think is going to be attractive to some folks,” said John.
Fisherman Joe Wikoff is more worried about getting his boat wet than his feet.
“Right now you can put in at Hwy 280 and run up to the Eagle Phenix Dam in a bass boat,” said Joe. “It’s about three-quarters of a mile. I think if they breach the dams the water is going to be a trickle in low-water conditions (from Highway 280 to Eagle Phenix).”
Mike Eubanks is a biologist with the corps, and he assures that consumers will not see a change if the breaching is approved.
“Removing the dams will not control the volume of water coming downstream,” said Mike. “Once you get a couple of hundred feet below Eagle Phenix, there will not be any difference in velocities, water depths, the width.”
Joe Wifkoff holds the Lake Eufaula shoal-bass record, a 6-lb., 9-oz. hawg caught below the Eagle Phenix Dam. He worries breaching the dams would hurt the shoal-bass fishery, but biologists say it won’t.
“Shoal bass particularly should have improved aquatic habitat (after breaching the dam),” said Mike Eubanks.
The project looks to cost between $7.2 and $7.5 million dollars, and the corps limit under the Continuing Authority Program is $5 million dollars. The cities of Columbus and Phenix City, Ala. are both sponsors of the project, meaning they approached the corps with the original request.
“We’ve got to go out and raise money,” said John Turner. “There’s a group of organizations that is sponsoring this effort, and these are environmental, tourism/development, economic/development.”
Dennis Hutto will continue making his voice heard.
“I just don’t want them to cut out our fishing,” said Dennis. “Fishermen need to stick together. Fishermen used to fish together, talk together, learn together. Now you go to a public meeting, and there’s a few fishermen there. Fishermen have no voice.”
If the funds get raised quickly, the reservoir between the two dams could be drained by the end of the year.
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