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Biological Assessments for a Hydroelectric Dam Project in the Upper New River

Considered the oldest river in North America—and one of the oldest in the world—the New River flows northeast from North Carolina through Virginia before turning northwest into West Virginia where it joins the Gauley River to form the Kanawha River1,2. In Virginia, the Upper New River passes through four dams (Fields, Fries, Byllesby, and Buck) as it extends from the North Carolina border northward into Claytor Lake (~134 km). Aquatic habitats and community structures are significantly impacted by dams through alterations to natural flow and thermal regimes, river processes, water quality, and by blocking species dispersal corridors2. In order to develop effective river management plans that maintain a balance between environmental interests and dam services (e.g., hydropower), a comprehensive understanding of aquatic community structures, dynamics, and habitats are essential. However, available data regarding species’ distributions and habitat descriptions across the Upper New River are often limited, patchy, or outdated and are in need of reassessments. 

Of the four dams dissecting the Upper New River, Fries Dam is currently undergoing relicensing—prompting the need for a review of the biological resources in the vicinity of the hydroelectric project area. To assess longitudinal patterns in fish, freshwater mussel, crayfish, and rare benthic macroinvertebrate assemblages and distributions, we planned a study to survey along an extensive 4-km reach of the Upper New River surrounding Fries Dam. In addition to monitoring aquatic fauna, searches for river-associated, federally threatened Virginia spiraea were included in our assessments. We divided the study area into five distinct reaches for evaluations: the impoundment, the bypass, an 800-m reach adjacently downstream of the bypass, and a reference reach above and below the influence of the dam. Across-taxa standardized surveying took place from mid-summer through early-fall 2016 using active and passive sampling techniques, including standardized backpack/boat electrofishing, snorkel observations, SCUBA diving, kick-nets, and seine-haul surveys. Surveys were conducted by biologists from CMI and The Fluvial Fishes Lab (Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation) at Virginia Tech with additional—and much appreciated—field support and technical assistance from the VDGIF biologists.

From our 2016 field season, we collected over 40 species of fish, including four endemics to the Upper New River: bigmouth chub, Kanawha minnow, New River shiner, and Appalachia darter. In addition, we documented populations for two mussels (purple wartyback and state threatened green floater), wide-spread distributions of spiny stream crayfish, and several Orders of aquatic insects. Additional sampling is planned for the 2017 field season…… where we are getting ready to land a Walleye, find that New River crayfish, dive for some pistolgrip, and increase our non-game fish species list!

  1. Benke, A.C., and C.E. Cushing, editors. 2005. Rivers of North America. Elsevier Academic Press, San Diego, California.
  2. Fluvial Fishes Lab, D. Orth. Fish can’t travel like we can. <http://vtichthyology.blogspot.com/2016/05/fish-cant-travel-like-we-can-by-don-orth.html>

For more information on this project contact Caitlin Carey

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