Save the Ohio River Basin Lake Sturgeon
Introduction: Save the #INlakesturgeon
Hello, thanks for visiting my GoFundMe page. My name is Gary Moody. I'm an environmentalist who started FISH: Fishable Indiana Streams for Hoosiers, a registered Indiana corporation.
During the next year, with your help, I will work with our current allies, and also engage others, to save the small genetically-distinct remnant population of lake sturgeon which once inhabited the Ohio River and its tributaries. They ranged across what are now 15 states and over 500 counties. (The USGS Streamer map below shows nearly 60,000 stream miles comprising the Ohio River basin, not all of which, of course, were or are suitable habitat for lake sturgeon.)
Today, they survive only in roughly 50 miles of rural river in southeastern Indiana. Their upstream passage has been blocked for over 100 years by a state-owned dam that now has no purpose and must be removed. Their critical habitat in the river must be protected and restored. Their population must increase so that their kind can be restored to as much of their historical range as possible. FISH and its allies (led by the Center for Biological Diversity) have taken legal action to force federal officials to comply with the Endangered Species Act and protect this population of lake sturgeon, and others nationwide. FISH has a plan specifically for the lake sturgeon in Indiana. However, FISH, Inc. has a staff comprising only me (the director) at this point. Your donation will enable me to do this work on at least a half-time basis well into next year, plus pay expenses such as travel and publicity. I'll also finish the process of obtaining 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in order to obtain grants and other large donations. And, hopefully, find some hands-on help!
Further details are below.
The last Ohio River lake sturgeon, Williams Dam, and FISH
Lake sturgeon are an ancient species with roots in the Lower Jurassic period, when dinosaurs ruled the land. Their historic range was a vast area of what are now the United States and Canada. Prior to the settlement of the Midwest, lake sturgeon inhabited many thousands of miles of rivers in the Mississippi River basin, including the Ohio River and its tributaries. As commercial fishing increased in these rivers, lake sturgeon came to be regarded as a nuisance and were typically killed and discarded, or used for animal feed or fertilizer, or even burned as fuel. Around the 1860's a lake sturgeon "caviar" industry developed. Waste and overfishing led to severe declines in lake sturgeon populations. As the Midwest industrialized, the construction of dams, and increasing industrial/urban pollution, hastened that decline. As did the clearing of forests for farm land, and increased sediment and chemical runoff from that land. Many other species suffered from these various problems, of course, but the lake sturgeon has been particularly susceptible due to its unique biology. By the late 20th Century, the Mississippi River basin lake sturgeon only survived in some tributaries in Missouri, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and in a small part of the East Fork White River in Indiana.
Circa 1912, Williams Dam was constructed in the East Fork White River in the Lawrence County village of Williams, as a source of hydropower. Use of the dam ceased in 1948, and ownership eventually went to the state; ironically, to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), which also manages wildlife and regulates hunting and fishing.
Construction of Williams Dam blocked the passage of lake sturgeon to the rest of their historic range upstream. Ever since, they have migrated upstream to the dam to spawn in the area just below it. In the meantime, they have been extirpated from the rest of their historic range in the entire Ohio River basin. Today, that former population exists only in part of the East Fork White River (EFWR) below the dam: The western half of Lawrence County, and to the west of that in Martin County. The exact number, or any estimate, is not known, but the population is officially described as "small."
A 2007 study ("Evaluation of a remnant lake sturgeon population’s utility as a source for reintroductions in the Ohio River system" - Drauch et al.) discussed the "genetic distinctiveness" of the East Fork White River population and its importance as a source of stock in order to re-establish the species in its former range in the Ohio River basin. (The State of Kentucky has reintroduced lake sturgeon in the Cumberland River, which is dammed, with stock from Wisconsin.) The study concluded that the EFWR population is "a genetically unique remnant stock... indigenous to the Ohio River drainage and that it simply escaped harvest and severe habitat destruction possibly due to its location in a rural Indiana landscape."
In late December 2013 I learned about a scheme, which had been generally concealed (while disguised as a "public process"), to restore hydropower generation at Williams Dam. I also learned about the plight of the river's lake sturgeon, connected the dots, and realized that they're probably doomed to extinction unless the dam is removed. I formed Fishable Indiana Streams for Hoosiers, Inc. (FISH) and attempted to intervene in the proceedings before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC denied the intervention. Nevertheless, I kept fighting the scheme, and got the attention of other, older environmental groups. In May 2018 the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the federal government to protect lake sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). I ensured that Indiana's lake sturgeon received special mention in the petition, and other environmental groups also spoke out about their plight. Perhaps our efforts had some influence, because in the Fall of 2018 the hydropower company surrendered its license to generate electricity at Williams Dam.
Obtaining Endangered Species Act Protection for the Lake Sturgeon
On May 29, 2019, the Center for Biological Diversity was joined by FISH, Hoosier Environmental Council, and Illinois Environmental Council in sending a Notice of Intent to sue the federal government for not responding to the lake sturgeon petition of the year prior. You can access the Notice at this link: https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/fish/pdfs/NOI-Lake-Sturgeon-29-05-2019.pdf
On August 14, 2019, the Center for Biological Diversity announced that the federal government is considering Endangered Species Act protection for the lake sturgeon: https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/iconic-sturgeon-great-lakes-mississippi-river-take-step-toward-endangered-species-protection-2019-08-14/
The federal government's finding was published in the Federal Register on August 15, along with a request for public comment: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/08/15/2019-17569/endangered-and-threatened-wildlife-and-plants-90-day-findings-for-three-species
We are currently monitoring the progress of the US Fish and Wildlife Service's progress regarding their plans for the lake sturgeon, while considering our next steps to ensure compliance with the ESA.
Our Plan to Save Indiana's Lake Sturgeon
In October 2018 I traveled to Dayton and toured the city's Five River Metroparks facilities. My main focus was downtown's RiverScape Metropark, particularly the amazing RiverScape River Run! As part of their downtown master plan, Dayton removed an old lowhead dam on the Great Miami River and replaced it with simple and natural-looking structures which enable not just the passage of fish and canoes, but also whitewater kayaking! They also built a similar facility a few miles outside of town at Eastwood Metropark, called the Mad River Run.
Many communities nationwide have used, or are considering, this model to remove dangerous "deadbeat dams" and restore a river's connectivity for wildlife, and to add a brilliant innovation to the community which provides recreation and draws visitors! Such a solution is being looked at in Indianapolis, where a dam has been blocking the White River for about a century. Emrichsville Dam also partially collapsed in October 2018, which made eventual removal a necessity, not just an option.
Therefore, based upon the well-established model of replacing a deadbeat dam with enhanced river access and recreation, and also the necessity of saving Indiana's imperiled lake sturgeon, FISH proposes that Williams Dam be removed, finally (as indeed was the State's plan in 2004), and replaced with a facility that will not only allow fish passage, but also recreation by canoers, kayakers, fishing enthusiasts, and others. Steps can be taken - perhaps by building one or more similar facilities upstream - which will maintain the City of Bedford's water supply from the river. (Which the State felt it could do in 2004, although we still need to find out what that plan was, exactly.)
Lawrence County, and the area, will benefit greatly by this plan. The first to benefit will be the village of Williams, Indiana. Population is about 300, with the sole business being a bait and tackle shop. Fishing would be improved by the removal of the dam (the historical structure on the village side, with the fishing platform, might stay), in terms of both more native fish in the river, and of better access to and recreational experience on the river by anglers. Personal watercraft such as kayaks and canoes could be another retail opportunity. Liveries and guides would find more opportunity as well.
Increased tourism in Williams and the vicinity could bring lodging businesses such as "bed and breakfasts." Perhaps a restaurant too! Williams is not only blessed with the river, but several other attractions and amenities. In recent years, the Milwaukee Road Transportation Trailway has been constructed between Bedford and Williams, a distance of 11 miles, which allows city residents to hike, bike, ride, and run to Williams. About a mile downriver from the dam site is the historic Williams Covered Bridge. Williams, and about 58 miles of the East Fork White River, are also within the boundaries of the Hoosier National Forest. (We'll be seeking to cooperate with the U.S. Forest Service to develop this plan.)
Williams is 10 miles downstream of Bluespring Caverns, which features the nation's longest known underground river. Prior to construction of Williams Dam it was possible to enter the cavern from the EFWR, apparently at the outlet of the cavern's underground river. The dam's pool has covered that entrance since circa 1913. The cave was only "rediscovered" in 1940 when a new sinkhole formed above and south of the East Fork, and is now a popular tourist destination. After the pool is drained or lowered, access to the historic entrance may boost that attraction.
How You Can Help
At the beginning of this page I described the need for your help, and how your donation will be used. I've had some struggles in life, otherwise I'd surely be well-to-do here in my autumn years. Fortunately, I managed to finish a college degree (long ago) and add environmental qualifications to that (more recently). I have a good home base here in the state capitol, and a great network of colleagues. Now the stars have aligned, so to speak, to shine good luck on Indiana's lake sturgeon: Williams Dam is due to come down, and we'll get federal protection for our fishy friends as well. Climate change is the wild card, however, and we have to get to work on their behalf, pronto! So please consider the value of Indiana's lake sturgeon #INlakesturgeon, and donate accordingly. Please share this cause with YOUR friends and colleagues. Be assured also that the value of donations will multiply rapidly - just as we hope that Indiana's lake sturgeon will do! Thank you.
Gary W. Moody
Director, Fishable Indiana Streams for Hoosiers, Inc. (FISH)
(Indiana DNR biologist with a young, small-fry friend.)