Removing dams in towns like Ipswich is hard work but restoring ecology
Dams can create beautiful waterfalls and ponds. Some produce hydroelectricity. In contrast, in Massachusetts dams are infrastructure that must be inspected and maintained. And the dams prevent fish from moving upstream to spawn, so the once-thriving herring fishery has dried up.
Now there is a movement in Massachusetts, and across the country, to remove dams and restore river ecology. It is a movement that has attracted supporters and opponents.
At a public meeting on June 29, people expressed a number of concerns, including:
- Will there be any negative effects on the city’s water supply?
- What happens to wildlife that take advantage of the river “pond” behind the dam?
- What happens to the investments that people and organizations have made along the banks where the water backs up behind the dam?
- Will the lower waters of the Concord River affect tributaries upstream?
Lance Kelly, whose home is in Billerica next to the Concord River, offered a different perspective during the Q&A. He said that when he first heard that the dam could be removed, his heart sank, but, after studying the matter, he realized that removing the dam would improve health. from the river.
“You can’t have a healthy Billerica, a vibrant Billerica, if you don’t have a healthy, vibrant Concord River,” Kelly said.
Milford, New Hampshire resident John Nevin took to the microphone to explain how removing a dam near his home on the Souhegan River has brought the river back to life. He said he had been swimming in the river for years and hadn’t seen many fish until the dam was removed. Now the river is teeming with fish, he said, and the bald eagles and ospreys have returned.
Where have all the fish gone?
There was once a thriving herring fishery along the River Ipswich, but the dam at Ipswich Mills, which was built in the early 19th century, made it almost impossible for migrating fish to get from their ocean to the fresh water to spawn. Even with a fish ladder, the herring have not yet returned in large numbers.
A first-hand account of historicipswich.org outlines the importance of the fishery. William Barton in 1972 wrote, “When the herrings were caught by torchlight,” in which he describes how everyone along the river knew how to catch herring.
Herring was a source of food and income for the residents. Then the farmers started using the fish as fertilizer. Eventually the herring fishery became important to the entire region.
“In the years that followed,” Barton wrote, “big trucks came in from Boston and were backed onto the dock and a big pipe ran out. This pipe was 10 or 12 inches in diameter and, like a vacuum cleaner, sucked the fish from the boat into the truck. These fish were taken to Boston where the oil was extracted and the remains of the fish were ground into flour.
According to Ipswich River Catchment Association (IRWA)in addition to the loss of fisheries, other negative effects of dams include:
- The loss of freshwater animals killed as they cross the dam.
- The water is warmer and less oxygenated where it collects behind the dam.
- Liability of dam owners.
The road to removing dams
Massachusetts has made dam removal a priority, and the The Ecological Restoration Division (DER) has helped remove more than 40 of the state’s estimated 3,000 dams since 2005. In addition to funding, the DER helps with project management and provides technical assistance.
When Governor Charlie Baker announced in 2021 $17.3 million in grants “to address failing dams, coastal infrastructure and levees across the Commonwealth”. Ipswich received a $75,000 grant for pre-licensing, appraisal and design.
Dam removal projects in Acton, Dudley and Northborough also received state funding, but a number of grants went to dam rehabilitation, including projects in Saugus, Gloucester and Peabody.
While the state regulates blockades and assists in removal, local organizations step in to handle the bulk of the work.
The IRWA is dealing with the removal of the South Middleton Dam, owned by adhesives manufacturer Bostik, and the Ipswich Mills Dam, owned by the City of Ipswich.
These are two of three dams on the River Ipswich, the third being the Willowdale Mills Dam, owned by the Foote family. The family operates Foote Brothers Canoe and Kayak Rentals directly at the dam, which is an integral part of their business.
“We’d love to see them all go down because they’re so damaging,” IRWA chief executive Wayne Castonguay said.
But for now, the organization is only focusing on the two. Going forward, Castonguay said, the IRWA will consider removing dams on a few tributaries.
River against pond
Addressing the many questions that people tend to raise about dam removal, Castonguay said, “All of these issues have been studied over the past 10 years and examined in depth, and there is no problem technique on one or the other of the dams. So the decision really comes down to cultural issues and what people think about changing what is now a pond to a river.
What about the effects on the fauna that take advantage of the pond above the dams? Wildlife that lives in the ponds can also live in the river, he said.
“Any river species that are actually much more endangered than pond species, and struggling in Ipswich, would benefit greatly, so it’s really not a contest,” Castonguay said. “The Canada goose that might have to nest elsewhere, which impact is far outweighed by all the endangered species that need a free-flowing river.
Studies take longer than removing dams
Most of the work of removing a dam, he said, takes place during feasibility and environmental studies and during design.
For the Ipswich Mills dam, for example, the then Board of Selectmen voted in 2010 to begin considering removal. The feasibility study was completed in 2019 and the board, which is now the select board, is still considering the ramifications of the dismissal.
“The removal process itself is remarkably fast,” Castonguay said. “Our two dams could be completed in about a week.”
Castonguay said in his experience, even people who oppose removing the dam come to believe it’s a good thing once the project is complete.
“Change is hard,” Castonguay said, “but once it happens, people say, ‘Oh, that wasn’t so bad. “”