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There are more than 19,000 dams in the Northeast. Many are small, dating back to the time when early industry harnessed the power of rivers. But today environmentalists and government agencies want to restore rivers back to their natural flow for the benefit of both migrating fish and people. As part of a collaboration between northeast stations Nancy Cohen from WNPR in Hartford reports on the debate over taking dams down.
Standing on the edge of the Neponset River which empties into Boston Harbor, Terry Dolan swings open a gate which leads to the old Baker Dam.
There was a time when the smell of chocolate mingled with the sound of falling water here. That’s when Baker’s Chocolate operated a factory, just a few feet from the site of the first water-powered grist mill in the U.S.
“Pretty amazing, huh?”
But now there’s a proposal to remove the Baker Dam. Dolan, who grew up near here, says the water is mesmerizing, but that’s not the only reason she wants to save it.”
“It’s an integral part of… our memories and our history of the industrial development of this entire region… Once its gone its gone.”
But Ian Cook of the Neponset River Watershed Association says for migrating fish this historical remnant is as bad as a toxic pollutant. He says the dam stops migrating fish, such as American shad and Blueback herring which used to swim upstream from the ocean.
“They’re trying to get back to their spawning grounds and boom… they’re stuck behind this wall they just can’t get past.”
Cook and Dolan are part of a community advisory group that’s trying to come to a consensus on whether to take the dam down. The project is complicated by PCBs, a contaminant stuck behind the dam, something common in the Northeast.”
About 60 miles north of here it took people in Merrimack New Hampshire five years to decide to remove a dam. Eric Hutchins of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration or NOAA, which helped take it down, nearly skips upstream as he checks out how the river has changed
“When the dam was here our head would have been just, just above the water right now and our feet would be five to six feet under water. This was all a pond.”
But now the undammed water is flushing sediment downstream, revealing boulders and rocks strewn across the new stream bed. Hutchins says this new habitat is good for insects and the fish that feed on them.
“A number of our Crayfish and even small fish will use these little spaces in between the boulders --- little hide out shelters and foraging areas --- in between all of the rocks.”
Hutchins says American shad might even return. That fish is pictured on Merrimack’s town seal dating back to 1746.
“This is not just a fish just for the Souhegan River or even Merrimack or New Hampshire. These are fish that will go out to the ocean, commercial fishermen will catch them down in the Carolinas, as well as all the way up to the Bay of Fundy up in Canada.”
That broader view is why NOAA has taken down 21 dams and barriers in New York and New England. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, American Rivers and Trout Unlimited are also taking down dams. But sometimes it’s safety that’s driving dam removal. Denise Ruzicka of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection says safety concerns came to a head three years ago, when a series of storms wreaked havoc in parts of the Northeast, including New Hampshire and Connecticut.
“We had a number of dams that failed during that flood ... with those dam failures it reminded us some of the risks that those dams pose being on that landscape.”
Sometimes it’s the cost of maintenance that takes a dam down. In the long term it would have cost more to keep the Merrimack Village dam than to remove it. Leo Fleurry, who has had a barber shop in Merrimack for 36 years, prefers the old dam to the newly released river.
“I’m very sad to see it go. I am, really. Because I thought the dam was beautiful and it was just very nice in this community.”
But as they say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Things may look different from underwater.
Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPR’s Local News Intiative.