Big Wills Creek Low Head Dam Removal

An approximately 100-feet wide low head dam formerly spanned Big Wills Creek just south of the Brooke Avenue bridge, near the former Gulf States Steel Pump House, in Gadsden, Etowah County, Alabama. The dam and adjacent pump house were constructed in 1903 and once used to impound water to supply the former Gulf States Steel Mill.

Between 2015 and 2017, four individuals lost their lives at the dam site. Low-head dams are particularly dangerous because as water flows over the top of the dam, it creates a recirculating hydraulic condition that can pull people and boats under the surface of the water and prevent them from escaping. These dangerous currents contributed to the four deaths at this site.

In 2017, The City of Gadsden (City) proposed to remove the dam, thus reducing the hazard it posed for recreational users on Big Wills Creek. The City retained S&ME to develop plans to remove the dam and prepare the necessary permitting documents.

Due to the historic nature of the dam complex and adjacent pump house, both were determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (NHRP). S&ME coordinated with the Alabama Historical Commission to complete the necessary documentation that would allow the dam to be removed.

S&ME prepared and submitted a pre-construction notification under Nationwide Permit No. 53 (Removal of Low-Head Dams) and Nationwide Permit No. 13 (Bank Stabilization Activities), to the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), for removal of the dam.

Following successfully permitting the dam removal, S&ME worked with the City to identify project partners with the expertise to safely remove the dam. Due to the unique hydraulic characteristics of the dam, many contractors were unwilling to attempt the Big Wills Creek removal. In November 2019, S&ME initiated a discussion with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) regarding the potential for assistance with removing the dam through their partnering program. Between 2019 and 2022, S&ME worked with the City and USFWS to facilitate removal of the dam.

After several years of coordinating efforts, the dam was finally removed in October 2022, thanks to the joint efforts of the City of Gadsden, USFWS, the Cawaco RC&D Council, CJ Aquatic Restoration, LLC, and S&ME.