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A River Unbound: Bloede Dam removal nears completion

Photo of dam from the sky

Construction site; by Jim Thompson

It was a hot, humid afternoon in June 1981, and Patapsco Valley State Park Ranger Paul J. Travers was on duty. On days like that, the heavily wooded park filled with high schoolers from the suburbs between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Ignoring the “no swimming” signs, they would splash into the cool Patapsco River and lounge on its huge boulders. Dozens of kids were swimming that day, sliding down the old, defunct Bloede Dam into the deep pool below. Suddenly, one of the kids disappeared underwater. His friends waited for him to surface, but he never came back up. Travers was there when rescuers pulled the teenager’s lifeless body from the water.

The boy was one of at least nine people to lose their lives at Bloede over the past four decades.

When it was built in 1906, Bloede Dam was considered an engineering marvel, with hydroelectric turbines hidden within the dam itself. After a few years, the dam was so clogged with rocks and sand that it became clear that maintenance on the dam was just too much to manage. Bloede was retired after only 24 years and that’s how it remained ever since: a concrete barrier that prevented native fish from migrating upriver from the Chesapeake Bay and a potential deathtrap for swimmers who couldn’t escape the underwater whirlpool at the foot of the dam.

Photo of fish underwater

River herring; by Jay Fleming

The Dam Problem
The impact dams have on migratory fish is of concern to state and federal resource agencies.

They prevent native Maryland species like American and hickory shad and blueback herring and alewife (river herring, collectively) from migrating upstream to their native spawning grounds, thereby limiting the habitat available to them. Historically, river herring and American shad were a major fishery resource throughout the Chesapeake Bay and a common food staple for Native American tribes. By 1979, these fisheries were near collapse, as evidenced by only 18,000 pounds in American shad landings in Maryland. The Patapsco River historically supported abundant stocks of river herring, shad and American eel; however, since settlement of the area, more than 300 dams have, at one time, fragmented the watershed.

Roughly a century after construction started on Bloede Dam, American Rivers, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Friends of the Patapsco Valley State Park began discussions that would ultimately lead to the removal of the dam and an effort to restore more than 65 miles of habitat for fish and address years of habitat fragmentation as a result of the industrialization of this river system. As the first barrier on the Patapsco, the removal of Bloede Dam is a linchpin to rebuilding stocks of these important aquatic species in this unique system.

Into the Breach
Before the dam could be removed, the partner organizations along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had a series of meetings over many months to determine how to even remove a dam (one with a major sanitary sewer line running through a portion of the dam) in the middle of one of Maryland’s most popular state parks.

The team also had to contend with sediment that has coursed down the river and built up behind the dam. The deck seemed to be stacked against the project team from the outset.

After years of negotiating, modeling, planning and permitting, the project had a path forward that included relocating approximately 1,400 linear feet of the Baltimore County sewer line further away from the anticipated river channel and a restoration plan that focused on allowing the river to heal itself.

The partners considered a number of options, including dredging, but it would have taken at least 99 trucks running every day for a full year to remove it all. The environmental impact of all those trucks cycling along narrow roads and through a well-loved park was too huge. Even though it would bury habitat temporarily, we know based on evidence at similar dam removal sites that these impacts would be short-lived and far outweighed by the rapid recovery of habitat and the species that thrive there.

Photo of explosives at dam

Breaching the dam; by Spartan Gocam

Construction crews mobilized on Sept. 5, 2017, and began the arduous task of installing a new section of sewer line for Baltimore County. Through the course of the next year, workers encountered more obstacles, like incredibly hard rock that savaged massive drill bits. They also battled the weather, including the 1,000-year storm event that struck the Patapsco River and destroyed portions of historic Ellicott City in May 2018. That catastrophic flooding also tore through the Bloede construction site, burying portions of the site in sand and water and sending our river crossing into downstream portions of the park. Weather continued to be a significant obstacle throughout the summer as the Baltimore area set new rainfall records.

In a race against the clock and an attempt to beat Hurricane Florence, explosives breached the dam on Sept. 11, 2018, and a turning point for the river was declared. Within an hour, the Patapsco was rushing through the breached dam.

In the weeks that followed, as the water, sand and gravel moved out of the impounded area above the dam, the construction crew removed concrete piece-by-piece. The restoration project still has plenty of work to do before the project is completed and the entire area is reopened to the public in 2019.

Since the breach there has been an ever-changing landscape as the concrete from the dam slowly disappeared and riffles and boulder rapids have been uncovered. Now the river is finding its new form, and fish and wildlife have a chance to recover. Rivers have a remarkable way of healing themselves. After a year or two, the river will begin to look like other free-flowing sections of the Patapsco.

Photo from inside the dam

One for the History Books
Although it had become a safety hazard and ecological hindrance in its later years, Bloede Dam’s place in history will not be forgotten. Following the successful breach, the Patapsco River rerouted and stopped flowing over the structure’s wall, revealing a full view of the historic 1906 slab-and-buttress dam.

Before further demolition work was done, a team from the Historic American Buildings Survey and the Historic American Engineering Record, a partnership of the Library of Congress and the National Park Service, arrived at the site to scan, measure and photograph the structure.

This information will provide a comprehensive historic documentation of Bloede Dam for the Library of Congress. In addition, the team will create a 3-D model for an interpretive display at Patapsco Valley State Park, for future generations to enjoy.

Pictured: Inside the dam; by Jarob J. Ortiz

Article by Serena McClain—American Rivers director of river restoration. Appears in Vol. 22, No. 1 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, winter 2019.