Dam Dispositions Take Spotlight at Mammoth Cave Meeting

by Mike Hensley, Green River Project Manager for The Nature Conservancy

Cordial. Positive. Productive. Solution-oriented.

These are words used to describe a well-attended meeting of stakeholders who recently gathered at Mammoth Cave National Park to discuss the future of three old lock and dam systems on the Green River and one on the Barren River. The participants – who represented public, private, academic and non-profit organizations – came prepared with thoughtful insights for this discussion, organized by The Nature Conservancy, which covered complex and potentially contentious issues.

Local leaders and stakeholders talk about the future of locks and dams located in the Green and Barren rivers.
Local leaders and stakeholders talk about the future of locks and dams located in the Green and Barren rivers.

The meeting kicked off with a warm welcome from first, our own Jim Aldrich, and then Mammoth Cave National Park Superintendent Sarah Craighead. Then one of our Chapter trustees, Larry Cox, set the tone for the day in pointing out that no matter what a person’s viewpoint might be with regard to the old lock and dam systems, we can all agree that they are aging and in varying states of disrepair. He noted that determining what role the obsolete lock and dams might play in the future of our river, should frame discussions taking place that day.

With everyone in agreement on that point, the meeting turned to a recap of the history related to these structures. Even though they no longer provide passage for commercial barge traffic, the lock and dam systems located along the Green and Barren rivers continue to have an impact on people and wildlife located in their drainage. For example, some municipalities have situated water intake structures in pools created by the dams. If dams are removed, these structures may need to be redesigned. From a different perspective, the locks and dams present a barrier to recreational use of the river and present a serious safety hazard to boaters.

Green River Lock and Dam 6 served as a focus of discussion.
Green River Lock and Dam #6 served as a focus of discussion.

The dams also disrupt the natural flow patterns of both rivers, resulting in negative impacts to fish, mussels and other river species and on the cave systems within Mammoth Cave National Park. In fact, the National Park Service has stated that the continuing presence of Green River Lock and Dam #6, out of operation since 1951, poses “the single greatest unresolved ecosystem management issue at Mammoth Cave National Park.”

After the history lesson, several in attendance gave excellent presentations on topics ranging from national experiences with dam removal to natural and cultural attributes specific to the rivers themselves. Following the presentations, the group broke out into separate facilitated sessions focused on the four individual lock and dam structures to share ideas, challenges, questions and opportunities for cooperation and research. After lunch, a panel reported on overarching issues and opportunities emerging from the facilitated sessions.

Participants consider lock and dam dispositions at a watershed scale.
Participants consider lock and dam dispositions at a watershed scale.

The day ended with a field trip – a short drive to see Green River Lock and Dam #6. There will be a lot of work and careful planning, many additional discussions, and assuredly some bumps in the road before any lock or dam removal takes place. But if our meeting served as any indication of the end result, I am confident that thoughtful discussion and informed consensus will lead to conservation actions that benefit people and these rivers. I already know first hand that The Nature Conservancy remains committed to finding and supporting solutions that remove dangerous dams, promote recreational access and associated local tourism, insure adequate water supply to communities, and restore natural flows to the river system.

Thanks to representatives from the following organizations for attending the meeting to weigh in on this important topic:

  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources
  • American Rivers
  • Mammoth Cave National Park
  • Office of Senator Mitch McConnell
  • Office of Senator Rand Paul
  • Office of Congressman Brett Guthrie
  • Office of Congressman Ed Whitfield
  • Barren River Area Development District
  • Numerous county and municipality representatives