Pretty soon, one of the state’s ecological treasures will get even better, thanks to the largest dam-removal project in Kentucky history.
Partners in the project showcased work Monday on removing Lock and Dam 5 on the Green River between Butler and Warren counties.
Officials said getting rid of the 301-foot long dam and lock structure, allowing the river to flow freely, will improve habitat for species including fish and mussels, make the river safer, improve fishing and create opportunities for expanded recreational use such as kayaking and canoeing.
“It’s just a tremendous win for the river and the people who love it,” said David Phemister, state director of The Nature Conservancy in Kentucky.
Dams alter rivers in ways that raise water temperatures, lower the amount of oxygen available, increase sediment and hurt water quality, which hurts aquatic species.
The Green River is home to 150 fish species and 70 mussel species, and of those, 43 occur nowhere else, making it one of the most biologically diverse rivers in the country, said Dave Dreves, acting head of fisheries for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
Studies have shown much higher levels of aquatic life in unimpeded stretches of the river, Dreves said.
The stretch of the river just below the defunct Lock and Dam 5 is a rich mussel bed and is home to one species, the rough pigtoe, not found anywhere else, said Lee Andrews, field supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Kentucky.
Removing the dam will create conditions for mussels to spread in the river, he said.
“We’re gonna restore a long reach of the river,” Andrews said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the dam in 1934 to allow boats to haul cargo and passengers on the river, including visitors to Mammoth Cave, according to The Nature Conservancy.
However, the Corps of Engineers stopped operating the structure in 1951. In addition to creating a pooled condition that was not good for aquatic life, that didn’t leave a way to pass the structure on the river.
Changing that became possible with legislation pushed by Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and signed in 2016 to de-authorize the structure from the Corps of Engineers inventory, according to The Nature Conservancy.
McConnell also arranged for federal funding for the $4.6 million removal project.
There were more than 700 dams removed around the country between 2011 and 2020, but only about half a dozen of those were in Kentucky, according to American Rivers, which advocates for dam removal and tracks the numbers.
One of those was Lock and Dam 6, which was 13 miles upstream on the Green River from the project underway at No. 5 and was taken out in 2017.
A dam on a tributary of the Green River also is scheduled to be removed. Funding is in place for the job and permits are being acquired, said Hayley Lynch, spokeswoman for The Nature Conservancy.
The groups and agencies involved in removing the Green River dams are The Nature Conservancy, the Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and Kentucky Waterways Alliance.
With the removal of the two lock and dam structures on the main stem, nearly 200 miles of the Green River will return to a free-flowing state, Phemister said.
Workers have already removed the 360-foot long lock on the Butler County side of the river, using concrete from that to build a platform in the river to bring in equipment that will jackhammer out the dam.
The work to breech the dam could start this week. Once it is gone, workers will remove the platform.
The Nature Conservancy will take title to the land after the project with the ultimate goal of opening it for public recreation.
“Future generations are really gonna benefit from what we accomplish here,” Andrews said.