Residents express skepticism about potential benefits of dam removal
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IPSWICH — Fish scientists and conservationists see the benefits as obvious. Residents along the river, however, see a view taken away and there is no water left for paddling.
Discussion at Monday’s restricted board meeting focused on the Ipswich Mills dam and whether the town should proceed with an application to remove the structure.
“This thing disgusts me. You can’t tear down this dam,” said John Chmura of Peatfield Street. Choking, he predicted, “The river is going to be a stream.”
A city employee for 34 years, Chmura said he had seen a lot of money spent on different studies and had no confidence in those done so far on the impact of the dam removal.
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“City money should not be used in this,” he said. “I will fight hard.”
Chmura was one of many riverside residents who disliked the project. However, not everyone who lives along the river opposed the removal of the dam.
Wayne Castonguay and Neil Shea of the Ipswich River Watershed Association (IRWA) argued in favor of removal. They were joined by Chris Hirsh, an ecological restoration specialist with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Restoration (DER).
The board voted 4-1 with Linda Alexson against to request a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grant to finance the authorization process.
Grants would be awarded in December 2022 and permit application would begin in spring 2023.
A former IRWA executive director, Selectperson Kerry Mackin, called the structure “one of the most environmentally damaging” in the eastern United States.
But, armed with a petition, Second Street’s Cheryl Gorniewicz said a “thriving ecosystem would forever be changed for the worse” by removing the dam.
Winter recreation would be eliminated and property values would suffer, she predicted.
She said the city should vote first if it wants to dispose of a public good and before spending any money. She also urged the board to consider alternative arrangements such as hyrdo power.
Coach Tammy Jones countered that the clearance process and hearings would uncover more information that could be presented to the public before a vote.
On hydroelectricity, Castonguay indicated that studies had been done but that the potential power available is too low to make the project feasible.
Resident Carl Gardner said the river is unlikely to be restored to pristine condition as it is already under severe stress.
He said the dam acts as a buffer and should only be removed if water withdrawals are reduced. In the meantime, conservationists should look to improve fish ladder transit rates if they want to repopulate the upper reaches.
When board chairman Willy Whitmore said stopping tidal water at the dam was unnatural for the river.
But Gardner said, “You’re wrong” if people think the river will return to its natural state. “We’ve screwed up Mother Nature so much it’s beyond our control.”
Nature will adapt
Anne Carroll of Upper River Road said “River systems are fluid systems”. When stopped, there are adverse effects such as lower oxygen levels and high water temperatures, she added.
Another riverside resident, Carla Villa, compared the Ipswich herring run of around 1,100 fish to the Parker River’s 33,000. She said a big fish migration every spring would bring people to town and be good for business.
Christine Sandulli said the dam backs up water to her home on County Road and she can compare the two types of flow. She said the view upstream was “very beautiful” and wanted to see the same happen downstream.
Erica Fuller spoke about the ecological impact of the dam and said its removal reduced potential flooding.
Tim Driscoll said he lived on the river and saw what it looked like when the water was drawn in 2016. He called it a “mud bowl” and said he didn’t there was no wildlife food. “I think the upstream impact will be quite significant,” he said.
Paul Mason asked about alternative arrangements such as an improved fish ladder or using rock ledges to hold water.
Bill Stewart of Fourth Street said the reason he moved to his neighborhood was to be able to kayak on the river. “What we have there is incredible thriving habitat that has adapted to the dam,” he said.
There is no guarantee the fish will return, but existing wildlife will leave, he predicted.
His neighbour, Eric Krathwohl, said the benefits had been exaggerated, adding: “Once the dam is gone, there’s no turning back.”
Another riverside resident, Brian O’Neill said he had an academic and environmental background. He also served on the conservation commission for 15 years, he said. “As much as I love the concept of a free river, it’s a suburban river,” he said.
He also saw the 2016 draw and didn’t like it, he said. “I will do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Jones said the comments demonstrated the need to move forward with the licensing process as it would address many concerns.
” Without this [information]it’s a guessing game,” agreed Selectperson Sarah Player.
However, Alexson said she was not in favor and said council should call for a municipal vote.
Whitmore said the board has now heard of the direct scorers, but would like more feedback from City. He agreed with Alexson that the decision should not rest solely with the select committee.