The Roanoke River flows from the Valley and Ridge province through the Blue Ridge, then across the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain to Albemarle Sound. In Virginia, only the Potomac and James rivers also cross through four physiographic provinces.
Until the Roanoke River was blocked by a dam in 1952, it was a highway for migrating anadromous fish.
Kerr Dam was built after a hurricane in 1940 flooded farmland along the river. The reservoir has provided flood control and hydropower since then, as well as a reliable water supply and flat-water recreation for boaters and anglers - but the dam has interrupted the normal flow of fish.
Three strains of striped bass may have lived in the river before the dam was built. One strain lived in freshwater upstream of modern Kerr Reservoir and did not migrate, a second strain lived in the middle river and moved to the brackish estuary in the summer, and a third strain spent most of its life in the saltwater of the Atlantic Ocean and used the Roanoke River only briefly for spawning.1
After Kerr Dam blocked migration, North Carolina stocked striped bass in the new reservoir and Virginia built the Brookneal Hatchery (now the Vic Thomas Striped Bass Hatchery in Campbell County) to ensure anglers would have striped bass to catch. Today, the Roanoke River between Kerr Reservir to Leesville Lake (known locally as the Staunton River in that stretch) is a popular place to fish for striped bass.
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Digital Library
The river may have been a high-quality highway for fish (and a trading center for the Occoneechee at the site of modern-day Clarksville), but it was a poor transportation corridor for colonial farmers. Farmers living in the Roanoke River watershed lacked a direct water connection to the Chesapeake Bay, since the Roanoke River flowed into Albemarle-Pamlico Sound rather than the Chesapeake Bay. Southside Virginia farmers (south of the James River and west of the Fall Line) were at a competitive disadvantage.
Unfortunately for the Roanoke River farmers, only shallow inlets between the barrier islands connected the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound with the Atlantic Ocean. The pattern of rivers in Southside Virginia, and lack of a good seaport at the mouth of the Roanoke/Chowan River, made it more expensive to ship crops to market. Topography and hydrography shaped economics, and colonial settlement occurred first in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Once settlers moved into the Roanoke River basin of Virginia starting in the 1720's, much of the region's tobacco was shipped by wagon on dirt roads to Petersburg.
the Outer Banks barrier islands limited shipping access from the Atlantic Ocean to the Roanoke River, so port cities developed in the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay watersheds and colonial settlement south of the James River was delayed
Source: National Weather Service, Eighteenth Century Virginia Hurricanes
The Roanoke Navigation Company, chartered in 1804 by the General Assembly, cleared obstacles from the river and made it easier for farmers to ship lumber, tobacco, corn, and other agricultural products to market. Navigation improvements were made from Weldon, at the Fall Line on the Roanoke River (near the Virginia/North Carolina border), up to the mouth of the Pigg River near modern-day Smith Mountain Lake. The Dan River was improved upstream to "Madison, North Carolina."2
Once the Roanoke River was made navigable and the Dismal Swamp Canal was constructed, Southside farmers could transport their products to Norfolk - providing access to the Caribbean and European markets.
The reservoir behind Kerr Dam is known locally in Virginia as Buggs Island Lake, after an island located below the dam that once was owned by Samuel Bugg. Representative John H. Kerr of North Carolina, who served in the US Congress from 1923-53, is credited with getting Federal funding for the water development project. It was known as the Buggs Island project from authorization in 1944 almost to completion in 1953, then named by Congress to honor Kerr after he was defeated for renomination. However, many in Virginia persist in using a Virginia place name, rather than highlight a North Carolina politician.3
The dam was one of 17 proposed in the 1930's for the Roanoke River basin. Initially, however, a Corps of Engineers assessment of the watershed did not find any projects to be justified, but then recommended a basinwide set of projects that could have completely replaced the free-flowing Roanoke River in Virginia with a chain of flat-water reservoirs:4
Construction of the Buggs Island and Phillpott dams were authorized in 1944, for flood control, recreation, navigation and hydropower purposes. The Water Supply Act of 1958 expanded the general purposes of Corps projects, to include municipal and industrial (M&I) uses. No new congressional reauthorization of the project was required, so long as M&I uses were just incidental to operations and did not seriously affects a facility’s authorized purposes.5
The missing purpose? Projects designed for irrigation are traditionally constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation, in the Department of the Interior.
In 1984, the Corps of Engineers approved a contract for Virginia Beach to use 1% of the storage space in John H. Kerr Reservoir and to withdraw water out of the Roanoke River Basin, pumping it through a pipeline to the city and its partner, the city of Chesapeake.6
It took longer for the Corps to assess the downstream impacts of water releases from Kerr Reservoir, which are coordinated with hydropower production at the privately-operated Gaston and Roanoke Rapids dams. In the 1990's, after The Nature Conservancy purchased over 10,000 acres from Georgia-Pacific Corporation to create the Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge, the conservation organization challenged the Corps to alter releases in order to mimic more closely the natural flow of the river. One goal was to alter the hydrological regime to minimize the long-term flooding in the floodplain during the growing season that drowned plantsand block normal reproduction by ground nesting birds, and to re-create short-term floods downstream in the springtime to spur striped bass to spawn.
Upstream, the City of Roanoke long ignored the aesthetic and recreational potential of the Roanoke River:7
A major 200-year flood on election day in 1985, triggered by Hurricane Juan, killed 10 people in the Roanoke River valley and caused the river to rise to over 23 feet in the city of Roanoke - where flood stage was 10 feet.8 That event led to a re-examination of the pattern of development and a $65 million flood control project by the Corps of Engineers. Moving structures out of the floodplain offered an opportunity to implement the 1907 recommendations.
In 1995, the City of Roanoke, Roanoke County, City of Salem, and Town of Vinton adopted the Conceptual Greenway Plan, Roanoke Valley, Virginia. Two years later, they established a regional partnership, the Roanoke Valley Greenway Commission, to implement the plan to build a trail along the Roanoke River.
the Roanoke River crosses through four physiographic provinces on its journey from near Blacksburg to the Albemarle Sound
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Effects of Flood Control and Other Reservoir Operations on the Water Quality of the Lower Roanoke River, North Carolina (Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5101)