BISHOPVILLE — The long-awaited Bishopville Pond restoration and dam replacement project is closer than ever to becoming a reality this week as the final stage of the approval process got underway on Monday.
The project, which has been on the books for years, includes replacing the existing Bishopville Dam on the Bunting Branch of the St. Martin’s River and creating a series of weirs, or “fish ladders,” to aid in the migration of several species native to the area. Ultimately, the dam replacement and the construction of the step pools around it will vastly improve water quality in the impaired waterway and create a natural transition from the tidal to the non-tidal sections of the pond.
On Monday, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) officially issued a notice for public comments on the project. On Tuesday night, Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials, along with Maryland Coastal Bays Program officials and Worcester County representatives hosted a public hearing in Bishopville to discuss various elements of the project.
“We think it is now imminent,” said DNR representative Kevin Smith. “MDE just issued a public notice on Monday and the public comment period is open for 30 days. Once it comes off the 30-day public notice, permits can be issued and we could be under construction by the end of the year.”
The finished product will include a renovated dam, the step pools, or fish ladders to assist with migration, and a sand berm that will provide a transition from the tidal to the non-tidal sections of the waterway. While assisting fish migration is one of the primary goals, improving water quality in the impaired pond is paramount for the project.
“The dissolved oxygen levels are non-existent, especially in the summer,” said Smith. “The pond is really stagnant and it’s been getting worse over the years.”
While few would argue with the project’s intent, some voiced concern about potential changes to the state’s Critical Area lines. Much of the project area falls within the state’s Critical Area, with its associated buffers and other restrictions on development, but Smith attempted to assure Bishopville residents no immediate changes to the line were planned.
“There’s been some concern about the potential movement of the Critical Area line,” he said. “The Critical Area line won’t be changed until it’s remapped. If they come in and remap the line, it could affect some property owners, but we expressly said we don’t want the Critical Area line moved.”
When asked about the level of toxins in the sediment built up at the bottom of the pond over the years, Smith said there was no reason for concern.
“Borings have been taken and there is nothing harmful in the samples,” he said. “All that sediment has been built up over the years is not toxic, but at a level that needs close attention. Sand placed on top of the sediment will lock some of that material up.”
Smith said other dam replacement projects in the past have not been as mindful of the potential for sediment disbursement. He described a “blow and go” approach used in some projects during which a dam is removed and the sediment behind it is allowed to flow freely downstream.
“That’s certainly not a good approach with this project,” he said. “It’s not a good idea here because of the different kinds of sediment. We’re going to keep the majority of the sediment in place and bring the water table up.”
While water quality improvement and fish migration are the primary goals for the project, there will be some aesthetic benefits. For example, the rusted metal sheeting on the existing dam will be removed, but the concrete foundation will remain in place. The dam will be “dressed up” with boulders, while the sand berm will be planted with trees and grasses native to the area.