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Archive for May, 2018

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The dam at Juliette on the Ocmulgee River. During Paddle Georgia 2018 we’ll portage around this circa-1920s dam and stroll through the 1991 movie set of “Fried Green Tomatoes.”

I take two words from this week’s 23-mile Paddle Georgia 2018 scouting journey on the Ocmulgee River with Georgia River Network board members and Paddle Georgia veterans Vincent Payne and Kit Carson

An anagram for those two words is “mad dash.”

Shad and dam.

Shad—we saw a school of them shooting through the river’s clear water.

Dam—the shad were bound no further than the Juliette Dam, the concrete structure that blocks their historic spawning grounds up the Ocmulgee and also forced us on a nearly half-mile portage.

For the record, trailers and trucks will be used to portage our boats during Paddle Georgia, and we’ll have the opportunity to stroll through Juliette and order some fried green tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. Juliette, you see, was the set for the iconic movie “Fried Green Tomatoes,” and tourism is now the circa 1920s village’s primary draw.

Scenes from the movie include the iconic low head dam which rises 20-feet above the bed of the river and creates a crashing waterfall.

Like many mill villages, the dam—which originally powered both a textile and grist mill—is inextricably linked to the town’s history. It is every much an emblem of the town as the fictional Whistle Stop Café so when the powerhouse and dam were recently threatened with closure and potential removal, the town’s boosters were understandably alarmed. In 2015, they began circulating save the dam petitions and held a festival to promote its preservation.

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Shoals like this one at Dames Ferry (downstream from Juliette) might be revealed if the Juliette Dam were removed and the river allowed to flow unfettered.

Earlier this year, owners of the dam asked federal courts to reverse a decision by federal regulators revoking the license to operate the dam. The revocation caused power generation to cease at the dam and opened the door to the possible removal of the dam to free up more of the Ocmulgee for shad and other migratory fish. The court’s decision is still pending.

The conflict is symbolic of similar dam fights playing out across our country. Our nation is home to 90,580 large dams. Like the one at Juliette, many are obsolete. They no longer turn spindles at textile mills or grind corn or wheat. The electricity they produce is minimal.

When built, they transformed communities. Today, depending on your perspective, they are nostalgic symbols of days gone by or relict killers of rivers and the critters that live in them. In the coming years, battles between two kinds of historic “preservationists” will be waged upon the ramparts of these dams.

In Juliette, one preservationist will call the dam a historic structure with intrinsic value to the community. The other will look further back in history to a time when the rivers flowed unfettered and the fish, mussels and other critters were abundant.

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This Altamaha slabshell mussel siphoning water on the bottom of the Ocmulgee might be one species that would benefit from the removal of Juliette Dam. Mussels depend upon fish to carry out a portion of their life cycle. The dam serves as an obstacle to fish, thus diminishing the reproductive prospects of mussels. The mussels do us a favor by filtering and cleaning vast quantities of water.

Include me among the latter. I have traveled the Chattahoochee through Columbus both before and after the removal of the town’s two historic mill dams. In 1995, I traversed every inch of that section by canoe, hoofing it around each of the dams, paddling the still water above them and lining my boat through the exposed shoals beneath them. In 2013, I made the same journey on a raft, experiencing a semblance of the shoals that caused Native Americans to congregate at this site long before the first settlers threw up the first dam in 1828.

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The Ocmulgee is flanked by many a rock outcropping and shoals break up long stretches of flat water in Jasper, Monroe, Jones and Bibb counties.

It was the closest thing to time travel I have ever experienced. A river unknown to several generations of Georgians was revealed, transporting me back in time—not 150 years to when we first began “developing” the river, but 500 years to when the river still flowed free.

What has happened in Columbus is well documented. The whitewater run created by the dam removals has generated unprecedented river-related economic development.

Similar transformations could take place in Juliette. While the town might lose portions of its circa 1920s dam, it would gain its free-flowing river that, like Columbus’ whitewater run, would likely attract paddlers and other river recreationist.

A dam removal discussion in Juliette is worth having. A “mad dash” to protect the “historic dam” at all costs leaves us and the shad with a dam in the way of an odd kind of progress—progress that turns back time.

Joe Cook, May 14, 2018

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