FRANKLIN, Tenn. - The Harpeth River is flowing freely for the first time in 50 years, becoming the longest free-flowing river in the state.
On Wednesday, heavy equipment removed a small dam from the river that formed a pool used to supplement the city of Franklin's drinking water.
Thanks to improved technology, Franklin will still be able to pull water from the Harpeth. The 6-foot-high dam will be replaced with a low-profile, in-stream boulder feature that has a drop of only about 6 inches but still creates a small pool.
That's better for the river and the animals that live in it as well as the people who use it for boating and fishing.
"You can paddle right over it," Harpeth River Watershed Association executive director Dorie Bolze said during a news conference at the site. "Fish can swim in and around and through it."
Bolze, a biologist, said the rivers of the southeastern United States have the greatest variety of fish of anywhere in the world. A survey found over 50 species of fish along a short 1-mile stretch of the Harpeth near the former dam.
"That's twice as many as in the whole Colorado River basin ... a huge river system that runs through eight states," she said.
Bill Reeves, the biodiversity chief for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said there are also over 40 species of mussels in the Harpeth. And he hopes that improving the health of the river could allow some species that have vanished from the area to be restored.
Reeves said winter trout stocking will continue and he expects the stream improvements to make the trout fishing even better.
The project is expected to cost $871,000 and includes building the new boulder feature, stabilizing the eroding banks with native plants and improving public access to the river.
Kayaker Judy Luna, of Lewisburg, said in a phone interview that she plans to check out that stretch of the river once it is open.
"I could be really nice," she said. "I think it's a great thing. It will really help the padding opportunities around Franklin."
Bolze said removing dams is a growing trend around the nation, although this is only the second time a dam has been removed from a main river in Tennessee.
"I'm very excited," Bolze said. "It's not often someone who is a river biologist can take out a lowhead dam structure. This will probably be my only one."
The area is closed to the public during construction, but anyone interested in following the progress can view it on the "dam cam" at www.harpethriver.org/damcam.