State commission hears testimony on Silver Creek dam removal

Nov. 23—NEW ALBANY — During an hours-long hearing, a state commission considered testimony pertaining to the removal of a dam on Silver Creek, but it could be a few weeks before a judge issues a decision on the matter.

On Tuesday, the Indiana Natural Resources Commission presented a hearing in Indianapolis related to the City of New Albany's motion to stay, or defer, the removal of the Providence Mill Dam amid the city's ongoing appeal process.

The City of New Albany has been fighting the removal of the Providence Mill Dam, also known as the Glenwood Park Dam, since last year. In June of 2021, the city appealed the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) award of a permit for the dam removal.

River Heritage Conservancy has been pursuing the removal of the low-head dam to create a 4.5-mile "blueway," the first project in the planned Origin Park. EcoSystem Connections Institute, a firm near Kokomo, Indiana, is partnering with River Heritage to remove the dam.

New Albany City Attorney Shane Gibson notes that the final hearing regarding the permit appeal will take place April 23, but the city wanted to prevent action being taken on the dam removal in the meantime. The final hearing will determine the outcome of the DNR permit.

"There's no automatic suspension or hold on those permits, so we're basically asking the court to hang on a second — we have the final hearing coming up, and no party should remove the dam while this is going on," Gibson said.

According to Gibson, Tuesday's stay hearing lasted about six hours, and the involved parties testified to the Natural Resources Commission, the presiding administrative body during the appeal process.

The hearing involved presentations from the City of New Albany, EcoSystems and DNR, and the parties must submit a brief to the administrative law judge by next Friday. Gibson expects that it will be a couple of weeks before a judge issues a ruling on the matter.

River Heritage Conservancy aims to open recreational access on Silver Creek, a project that has been delayed due to the City of New Albany's appeal of the dam removal. Representatives from River Heritage Conservancy say the low-head dam poses safety risks for paddlers on the creek, and removing the dam is an essential part of its project to open access to the waterway.

The New Albany City Council unanimously approved a non-binding resolution on Nov. 15 urging involved parties to come together to explore alternative options before the removal of the dam. The council requested mediation between the city, EcoSystems, DNR and River Heritage Conservancy on the matter.

However, an administrative law judge with the Natural Resources Commission had already denied the City of New Albany's motion to order mediation between the parties in a Nov. 2 decision.

Following the approval of the New Albany City Council's resolution, River Heritage Conservancy released a statement Nov. 16 declining the council's request for mediation, saying the nonprofit is not a party to the legal challenge and "therefore does not see a need nor a benefit from entering into mediation between the two opposing parties."

On Nov. 17, a news release was issued from the City of New Albany in response to River Heritage declining the mediation request. The release describes Origin Park as a "Clark County initiative," saying the conservancy has been "pursuing destroying the over 100-year-old, historic dam in New Albany for months despite protests from the City of New Albany."

"There are many outstanding issues that the City of New Albany believes should be resolved before any attempts to remove the historic dam are made," New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan said in the news release.

Gibson said the goal is to get "everyone at the table." The city wants River Heritage to be part of the mediation process, and he emphasizes that EcoSystems would be removing the dam on behalf of River Heritage.

"I think getting the true parties of interest to the table is going to be important at some point," he said.

As the City of New Albany challenges the removal, officials have expressed concerns about the environmental effects on the Loop Island Wetlands and other nearby properties.

EcoSystems conducted multiple studies for the dam removal as required for the permitting process, according to previous reporting from the News and Tribune, and Jerry Sweeten, an ecologist with EcoSystems, said in August that the Loop Island Wetlands would not be damaged by the removal of the Providence Mill dam.

Sweeten also told the News and Tribune that low-head dams are dangerous for boaters and swimmers, and the firm's previous removals of low-head dams in Indiana have resulted in positive environmental effects.

Representatives from River Heritage Conservancy have previously told the News and Tribune that the dam removal would improve fish spawning and passage.

In last week's news release, the conservancy stated that "we do believe that removing such dams has been proven beneficial to both the safety of those using the creek to fish, canoe and kayak, as well as scientifically improving the quality of water and aquatic life, both above and below the water."

"Going forward we hope that this matter can be resolved quickly and that in the days and years to come, we can all work together, in cooperation, to build a park that celebrates all aspects that Jeffersonville, Clarksville and New Albany enjoy as part of Ohio River history."

In 2020, River Heritage and EcoSystems received a $75,000 grant from DNR for the removal of the Providence Mill dam.

Susan Rademacher, executive director of River Heritage Conservancy, told the News and Tribune in September that the goal is to open the blueway in the spring of 2023. However, the access point nearest to the Providence Mill Dam will not be opened while the low-head dam is still in place, "because it is such a threat to human life," she said.

In New Albany's news release, it is noted that the ownership of the dam is "under question." The statement references the city's ongoing work to develop the area around the dam with projects such as Silver Creek Landing, and the release cites concerns that the removal would "compromise" the projects.

The city's news release also suggests the exploration of "safe alternatives" to the dam removal, including conversion to "rock arch rapids," which is a way to modify existing dams.

New Albany officials have also cited historic preservation as a reason to keep the dam in place. The city's Nov. 17 news release notes that Floyd County Historian Dave Barksdale and the Indiana Landmarks Historic Preservation Office both support the preservation of the dam.

The low-head dam was built more than 100 years ago, and it was created for recreational purposes to support the former Glenwood Park.

River Heritage Conservancy's Nov. 16 release states that the nonprofit has "always welcomed and provided many opportunities for the City of New Albany to engage on this project."