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Tens of thousands of steelhead trout and other lake fish swim up Cattaraugus Creek every fall seeking a quiet spot to spawn.

But a concrete barrier 38 feet high cuts short their journey. The Scoby Dam stops their spawning runs near Springville, about halfway along the creek’s 70-mile stretch between Sunset Bay and Java Lake.

But that could end. A $6.6 million proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would shorten the decaying 92-year-old dam by nearly 30 feet, linking the 34-mile stretch of the lower Cattaraugus Creek with the upper part of the creek and also 44 miles of tributaries. The plan also includes installing a ramp that would enable fish to cross between the upper and lower parts of the creek.

If approved, this could happen in less than three years.

Area anglers already envision sustainable communities of steelhead on both sides of the dam, which would boost Cattaraugus Creek’s reputation as a fishing stream.

“All these streams just have tremendous populations of wild, inland trout now,” said Chuck Godfrey, president of the Erie County Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs. “There’s no reason to believe the steelhead wouldn’t be as successful.”

The joining of the two parts of the creek would not only return the creek to its natural state, but also would promote the wild reproduction of steelhead and several species of trout and other fish in Cattaraugus Creek.

“We expect to see a lot more wild fish in the system,” said Paul McKeown, supervisor of natural resources for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “If this takes off as we expect, you’d see it become popular far beyond resident fishermen.”

For fishermen, the biggest benefit would be more access. Now, with private property and the Seneca Nation of Indians land along the lower creek, only four miles of public fishing access are available in the lower portion of the creek, the stretch between Lake Erie and the dam, compared to the 34 miles of public access along the upper creek.

“It would be a high-quality steelhead fishing experience,” McKeown added.

What’s more, a local group of whitewater kayakers hopes to capture some of the swift moving currents along the entire creek.

Critics, however, fear that joining the upper and lower parts of the creek could result in ecological damage by letting the parasitic sea lamprey – already in the lower creek and Lake Erie – into the waters of the upper creek. They also point out that introducing the larger steelheads in the upper creek could threaten the rainbow and brown trout.

Others worry kayakers could disrupt fish and the serenity of the creek.

Corps of Engineers officials offer a solution for the lamprey, but say the public must work out on its own the recreational uses of the land and creek.

“Everything we’re doing is specifically related to ecosystem restoration,” said Geoffrey K. Hintz, project manager for the Corps of Engineers.

The plan

The plan calls for reducing the 182-foot-long dam spillway from 38 feet to about 10 feet in height.

A 15-foot-wide fish passage ramp would then be installed at a slope of 5 percent on the north end of the creek, allowing fish to move between the lower and upper creek. A special trapping mechanism in place between March and June would keep the invasive lamprey from getting into the upper creek during lamprey spawning season.

At other times of the year, fish could travel unobstructed around the dam between the upper and lower creek.

“In the late summer and winter months, we would open the block because the adult lamprey are no longer in the stream, and allow free passage between the upper and lower creek,” said Richard Ruby, a biologist for the federal agency.

Ruby said fish ramps have been installed successfully in other parts of the country. The Corps of Engineers, along with officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the DEC, are working to design it in a way to allow as many fish species to pass through while keeping the lamprey out of the upper creek.

Concerns the lamprey could get into the upper creek watershed are unfounded, Ruby said. In the summer they’re in the lower creek and their biology make it nearly impossible for them to establish a sustainable population on the other side of the dam, Ruby said.

Hintz said the Corps of Engineers plan remains under review following a public comment period that closed earlier this month. He called the proposal “a win-win” for all stakeholders on the creek.

A historic dam

The dam was built in the 1920s and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Erie County acquired it shortly after Springville stopped using it to produce municipal power in 1998.

The dam violates state environmental regulations because it fails to meet current storm water management standards. In the event of a 100-year flood, the creek could erode the banks on either side of the dam, potentially destabilizing it and releasing a torrent of water heading down the creek.

“There’s going to be dam failure at some point in time because no one is maintaining it.” said Gary A. Eppolito, Concord town supervisor.

To comply with state law, the dam must be reduced in height at least 8 feet.

Erie County faces a choice: address the problem now with the Corps of Engineers plan that has some tourism and environmental benefits, or plan to fix or remove the dam later while hoping to avoid a structural failure before then.

“This dam has been flagged by the state,” said Erie County Majority Leader John Mills, R-Orchard Park, whose district includes the dam. “Eventually, this dam’s going to have to be removed.”

Mills said the timing looks right, if the county can secure its share of funding, to lure millions of dollars from the federal and state governments to not just fix the dam, but restore the ecosystem of the creek.

Reaching agreement among the federal, state and local governments seems the lone impediment to the Corps of Engineers’ timeline that calls for construction to be completed by the end of 2016.

The federal government would cover 65 percent of the estimated $6.6 million price through the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative program, with the state and county splitting the remaining amount – about $2.4 million.

The exact amount of money Erie County would have to spend hasn’t been established, but Mills said it would be significantly less expensive to county taxpayers – with environment, recreation and tourism benefits to boot – to proceed with the proposal from the Corps of Engineers.

He said he hopes to have a resolution in place in time for next year’s county budget. To miss this opportunity, Mills said, would mean higher costs to county taxpayers down the road – without the benefits of opening the creek for better fishing.

“It would be a big mistake,” Mills said. “It’s a best-kept secret. With the proper marketing by the county and convention and visitor’s bureau, this could be a windfall for our taxpayers.”

More robust fish

It’s been a lifelong dream of local angler Gene Parzych, who began fishing the creek as a boy after World War II. He has advocated for some way to join the fishery from the lower to the upper creek.

“There is no natural reproduction of the steelhead below Scoby Dam and we’ve stocked them by the millions – it’s stupid,” said Parzych, who’s also a member of the Erie County Environmental Management Council. “There’s areas of the upper creek and tributaries that are a hatchery waiting to happen and have been for more than 60 years.”

Lower Cattaraugus Creek is stocked every spring with 72,000 steelhead yearlings, according to a DEC report, which also pointed out that only about 25 percent of the fish returning to the creek as adults are wild.

Anglers think opening up the whole creek to steelheads could change that dramatically.

“If they spawned naturally instead of coming out of our hatchery, a much, much higher percentage of them from the lake would come back,” said Godfrey, the Erie County Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs’ president.

That’s an exciting prospect, said Hintz of the Corps of Engineers.

“For thousands of years, these fish have come in from the lake up the tributaries and 100 years ago they were stopped from doing that,” Hintz said. “Once we get done with this project, we restore that connectivity … and the fish will be able to go up and down that creek.

“That will create a stronger and more robust population.”

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com