Roanoke River

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 Buggs Island Lake/Kerr Reservoir to Leesville Lake is a popular place to fish for striped bass, during annual spawning runs upstream from Buggs Island Lake/Kerr Reservoir. That stretch of the Roanoke River is known locally as the Staunton River.

striped bass
striped bass
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Digital Library

The Roanoke 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.

Roanoke River does not flow into the Chesapeake Bay, so farmers in the watershed lacked easy access to transatlantic shipping
Roanoke River does not flow into the Chesapeake Bay, so farmers in the watershed lacked easy access to transatlantic shipping
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia's Watersheds

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
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

In 1927, the Army Engineers were authorized to make a specific survey of the Roanoke River... The detailed survey of the Roanoke River was transmitted to Congress in 1934; in it the Chief of Engineers stated that a comprehensive plan for navigation and power, flood control or irrigation "is not economically justifiable at the present time" ...and concurred in the judgment of the investigating engineer that "(t)here is no justification for any Federal expenditures for either flood control or power."

...Following a destructive flood on the Roanoke River in 1940, the House Committee on Flood Control adopted a resolution requesting reappraisal of the previous reports on the Roanoke River to determine 'whether any improvements in the interests of flood control and allied purposes are advisable at this time.' ...[A]s a result, the Corps of Engineers submitted its recommendations in a report which... proposed a system of eleven dams and reservoirs, eight of them on the Roanoke River.

in Virginia, Kerr Reservoir is officially known as Buggs Island Lake
in Virginia, Kerr Reservoir is officially known as Buggs Island Lake
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), John H. Kerr Dam 7.5x7.5 topographic quad (2013)

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

In 1907, noted landscape architect John Nolen proposed the municipal purchase of both river banks within the city to preserve its natural resources "before it is too late and set them apart for the public for all time to come." Instead, Roanoke used its namesake as an industrial drainage ditch and open sewer that meandered through the city largely unnoticed except when its oily, trashy floodwaters spilled into the streets. A century later, the Roanoke Valley is rediscovering the river as a natural resource that's rich with recreation and commercial possibilities...

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 Greenway connects to other trails in the urban area, including Mill Mountain
the Roanoke River Greenway connects to other trails in the urban area, including Mill Mountain
Source: Roanoke Valley Greenways, Maps

Banister River

Lake Gaston

Smith Mountain Lake

"Staunton" vs. "Roanoke" River

Fish Passage and Dam Removal

Links

the Roanoke River crosses through four physiographic provinces on its journey from near Blacksburg to the Albemarle Sound
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)

Kerr Dam
Kerr Dam
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, John H. Kerr Dam and Reservoir

References

1. Nick Karas, The Complete Book of Striped Bass Fishing, Globe Pequot, 2000, pp.98-99, http://books.google.com/books?id=3nop6BtvEA4C (last checked February 2, 2013)
2. Clement, Maud Carter, An Abbreviated History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, c. 1952 www.victorianvilla.com/sims-mitchell/local/clement/mc/abb/05.htm (last checked February 1, 2013)
Madison, NC in 1895 NOTE: The document states that the Dan River was improved to Meade, rather than Madison NC. However, the USGS Geographic Names Information System does not list a "Meade" in North Carolina. One possibility is that Meade was an earlier place name for the town of Madison on the banks of the Dan River, south of Martinsville (see current map and 1895 map). However, Dr. William Trout reports, If it was Henry Howe's "Historical Collections of Virginia," 1845, reprinted 1969, then on page 429 it says "The [Dan] river is navigable for batteaux carrying from 7,000 to 10,000 pounds as far up as Madison, North Carolina." ...I think it was a misprint in an early publication, and it has been repeated ever since. I don't think Madison was ever called Meade. Perhaps there was some confusion with Meadesville (also Meadville) the head of batteau navigation on the Banister at that time. Dan Shaw suggested The author was familiar with Meadville, VA, where George Washington crossed the Bannister River on his way back home on his 1791 Southern Tour. I can only guess she wrote the wrong name and no one ever caught it.
Thanks to Dan Shaw, Henry and Sarah Mitchell, and Bill Trout of the Virginia Canals & Navigations Society for this clarification.
3. "'Kerr Lake' vs. 'Buggs Island Lake' - What's in a name?," Kerr Lake Guide, http://www.kerrlakeguide.com/node/10 (last checked February 2, 2013)
4. 345 U.S. 153, UNITED STATES ex rel. CHAPMAN, Secretary of the Interior, v. FEDERAL POWER COMMISSION et al. VIRGINIA REA ASS'N et al. v. FEDERAL POWER COMMISSION et al., Argued Oct. 22, 1952 Decided March 16, 1953, https://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/c/US/345/345.US.153.28.29.html; "The Project That Changed Everything," SoVaNow.com (South Boston News & Record and Mecklenburg Sun), October 24, 2012, http://www.sovanow.com/index.php?/news/article/mecklenburg_county_meets_the_government_men/ (last checked February 2, 2013)
5. "Using Army Corps of Engineers Reservoirs for Municipal and Industrial Water Supply: Current Issues," Congressional Research Service, January 4, 2010, p.2, http://assets.opencrs.com/rpts/R41002_20100104.pdf (last checked February 2, 2013)
6. Richard B. Whisnant, Gregory W. Characklis, Martin W. Doyle, Victor B. Flatt, Jordan D. Kern, "Operating Policies and Administrative Discretion at the John H. Kerr Project - A Component of a Study of Operations at the John H. Kerr Project pursuant to Section 216 of Public Law 91-611," October 31, 2009, p.47, http://sogweb.sog.unc.edu/Water/images/a/ae/FinalReportKerr216DiscretionaryAnalysis.pdf (last checked February 2, 2013)
7. "Rebirth of the Roanoke River," The Roanoke Times, September 16, 2007, http://www.roanoke.com/news/roanoke/wb/132317 (last checked February 2, 2013)
8. "The Floods of November, 1985: Then and Now," National Weather Service, 2010, p.4 and p.8, http://www.erh.noaa.gov/rnk/hydro/Flood%20of%201985_Then-Now.pdf (last checked February 2, 2013)

Roanoke River watershed
Roanoke River watershed
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)


Rivers of Virginia
Rivers and Watersheds of Virginia
Virginia Places