New Albany officials are formally appealing the removal of a low-head dam from Silver Creek.
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources approved the removal of Providence Mill Dam earlier this month. It’s part of River Heritage Conservancy’s plan for the 600-acre Origin Park, which includes opening Silver Creek to paddlers and other types of recreation.
The nonprofit’s executive director Scott Martin said removing the low-head dam will increase safety and benefit local wildlife along the waterway, which separates Clark and Floyd counties.
“The best aquatic biologists, both at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, looked at the project and determined that removal of this dam delivers just slam dunk benefits for the native fish, mussel, amphibian and reptile communities that call that place home,” Martin said. “So the science is in, which is why the permit request was approved by the regulatory agency.”
But officials in New Albany disagree with the decision. Mayor Jeff Gahan said he wants the DNR to conduct a study on the effects of removing the dam first, then publicize the findings to residents. Like Origin Park, New Albany has separate plans to allow residents to paddle on Silver Creek.
Property owners along the creek recently received letters from Gahan, outlining his concerns and explaining how they can file a separate appeal.
“This is just me doing my job to make sure that some folks out of Indianapolis are not just haphazardly making these decisions that impact people that live in New Albany, and gives the citizens the peace of mind at least know what’s going to happen before they remove a dam that has been there for over 100 years,” Gahan said.
The old Providence Mill Dam, or Spring Street Dam, is located near its titular street, about two miles upstream from the Ohio River. The low-head dam is 290 feet by 6 feet, and has been in place for about a century, though it no longer serves a purpose.
In his letter to residents, dated June 14, Gahan listed five of his top concerns about removing the dam. They include questions about ownership of Silver Creek, the DNR’s authority to delegate the removal to a third party, the effects on recreation in the creek and the effects on the surrounding landscape, which includes the city-owned New Albany Loop Island Wetlands.
“That is really a special ecosystem in itself,” Gahan said. “All I’m saying is why don’t we do a study? At least let everyone know the effects of the dam removal. That’s all I’m suggesting.”
Gahan also cited erosion concerns along a nearby portion of the Ohio River in Clarksville, which caused a riverside roadway to collapse and shut down indefinitely in 2019.
But Martin, of the River Heritage Conservancy, said that sort of natural change is due to the much more powerful Ohio River, not Silver Creek or the low-head dam. The DNR website states low-head dams “store a minimal amount of water below the stream bank level, within the channel, and do not typically provide flood reduction storage.”
Martin said neither Gahan’s concerns about erosion, nor his questioning about why a separate low-head dam a few miles upstream at Blackiston Mill isn’t also being removed, are pertinent to the removal of the Providence Mill Dam.
“Change can be scary, but it’s only change that’s been there for about 100 years,” Martin said. “So that’s really the only negative one you worry about. Aesthetically, I’m used to there being a small reservoir upstream, and it’s not going to be that anymore once the dam is gone.”
Martin says while there will be changes to the creek’s flow and the surrounding landscape, they’ll happen over the course of time, and will be monitored.
“After the dam comes out, over a couple of years, the silt will move its way through, and then you’ll see the normal rock bottom [and] native stream that was there beforehand,” Martin said.
Local and state officials in Indiana have pushed to make waterways with low-head dams safer in recent years, usually by removing them entirely or posting signage that indicates danger. More than 140 such dams still exist across the state.
Data from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security shows that the state has the 10th highest death rate related to low-head dams in the country, with 25 occurring between 2010 and 2020.
When asked about the danger associated with low-head dams, Gahan said he isn’t dismissing the risk. His appeal is more about procedure.
“I don’t think DNR has any intentions of doing anything other than removing the dam,” he said. “They have not done a presentation. I think they’ve already made up their mind. But at the end of the day, I think it’s my job to make sure the people involved know exactly what’s happening in New Albany.”
The Indiana Natural Resources Commission will serve as the presiding body during the appeals process. Martin said the science is on the River Heritage Conservancy’s side and expects the appeal to quickly fail.