With today being the opening of Pennsylvania's regular bass season and trout season underway for more than a month, the timing could not be better for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and Wildlands Conservancy to announce the results of the recently completed Lehigh River Fish Passage Improvement Feasibility Study.

Conducted by KCI Technologies, Inc., an engineering consulting firm, the study was funded by a grant from the American Rivers and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Community-based Restoration Program and funds from the Palmerton Superfund settlement account. More than 70 stakeholder groups and agencies were invited to participate in the study process, with the objective of the project to investigate options for improving fish passage at the Easton and Chain Dams along the Lehigh River, while providing a mechanism to sustain water flow into the Lehigh and Delaware Canals, which are currently watered by the two dams.

Although there are currently fishways on the Easton Dam, the Chain Dam and the next dam upstream, the Hamilton Street Dam in Allentown, they have proven to be very inefficient for passing migrating shad. After much study, it has been concluded that the only feasible way to allow fish migration into the river in substantial enough numbers to allow populations to recover is to remove the dams.

A process will now begin to evaluate the risks, costs, and benefits associated with either dam removal, or the "no action" alternative, which would result in the current fishways continuing to operate in an inefficient manner. Public comment is invited on the study and can be emailed to feasibilitystudy@wildlandspa.org by 5 p.m., Friday, June 21, and text of the study can be downloaded at www.fishandboat.com/water/rivers/lehigh/LehighFishPassageFeasibility.pdf

For centuries, beginning with the Eastern Woodland Indians, the Lehigh River has been used and enjoyed by countless generations for both industrial and recreational purposes. In the 1970s the passage of the Clean Water Act began the environmental movement that has since led to dramatic improvements in the ecological health of the river, but the Lehigh still faces enormous challenges, which include the existence of large dams that adversely affect water quality and aquatic and riparian habitat, prevent the natural movement of many resident and migratory fish species, exacerbate flooding and erosion, and are significant public safety hazards.

Dams constructed on the Lehigh during the 1800s have resulted in the near extirpation of American shad and other migratory fishes, including hickory shad, blueback herring and alewife, from the river. American shad is an anadromous fish that lives much of its life in the Atlantic Ocean, but must migrate into freshwater rivers and streams to spawn.

Before the dams were constructed, shad were an extremely abundant and very critical component of the Lehigh River ecosystem. Creation of the dams stopped shad migration into the Lehigh River. Removing dams will allow shad and other migratory fish to return to the Lehigh and will allow resident fish to move freely throughout the river.

Restoration of American shad was the primary impetus for undertaking this project, but the many potential social and environmental benefits that could result would extend far beyond fish. For more than 30 years the PFBC, Wildlands Conservancy and their partners have been attempting to restore American shad to the Lehigh River through a combination of stocking and provision of fish passage at existing dams.