January 18, 2020

Mass. dams ripe for removal, to benefit of fisheries

An intensified focus by the state to remove aging and useless dams, a new law aimed at making it easier to do so, and apparently willing municipal partners have converged to build momentum, said Tim Purinton.

The director of the Division of Ecological Restoration in the state Department of Fish & Game was speaking after the recent removal of the hazardous 84-foot Bartlett Pond Dam in Lancaster.

Mr. Purinton said “we get excited” when public safety challenges are met and nature benefits through a dam removal, which was the case here.

The Lancaster dam, which had been in disrepair, was the first in the state to be completed using funds from a dam and seawall law that Gov. Deval Patrick signed in January 2013. A year later he announced a $116,000 loan for Lancaster, a $240,000 grant for Worcester’s Poor Farm Dam and a $173,199 loan and $6,750 grant for Brookfield’s Saw Mill Pond Dam.

It began with $17 million paid years ago to the state treasury by about eight cities and towns that repaid drinking water project loans.

The fund addresses the growing need to repair dams, coastal flood control structures and inland flood control structures that pose a risk to public health, public safety and key economic centers.

Then-Lancaster administrator Orlando Pacheco said removing the dam saved Lancaster more than $600,000 over the cost of replacing the dam.

Already the Lancaster project has yielded ecological results, Mr. Purinton said.

“Our sister agency, Mass. Wildlife, did some sampling in Lancaster and found that eastern native brook trout were using the restored area of the stream almost immediately after dam removal,” Mr. Purinton said in a recent interview.

Tom Philbin, a legislative analyst for the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which was part of a coalition to help get the bill funded, said: If the goal of the state Department of Environmental Protection “is to increase the amount of fluvial fish in a river or stream, we think the best way to get there and to reduce pollutants in rivers and increase the health of rivers is remove dams.”

Mr. Purinton said many dams are owned by municipalities, which are increasingly looking at dam removal as a preferred long-term option to a repair.

The state already has joined about two dozen communities for removals and has 20 to 30 projects underway that are going forward in the next few years, Mr. Purinton said.

The state, he said, had accomplished “a fair amount of projects” on the coast because they tend to have multiple species that benefit from dam removal that require access to the ocean. This rises those projects to the top of ecological priority lists, he said.

But with 3,000 old mill dams no longer serving a useful purpose and that are a potential liability, their removal would have a tremendous benefit for river healthacross the commonwealth, Mr. Purinton said.

Central Massachusetts, he continued, has good cold-water streams that are holding on, but dam density per river mile is one of the highest in the nation.

The Blackstone River was largely an industrial river that was rigorously dammed, and so many dams in the region no longer serve a beneficial purpose and are good candidates for removal, the state official said.

In North Worcester County, at the Athol-Phillipston line, the state completed two dam removal projects in the headwaters of Thousand Acre Brook in January 2013.

The project removed about 300 feet of the primary dam spillway, completely removed a smaller upstream dam, restored five miles of river habitat to native fish and wildlife and relieved Athol of ongoing maintenance costs, officials said.

Douglas A. Walsh, superintendent of public works in Athol, said it was a great project because after the town stopped using it as a water source, the dam was at full storage year-round, and the town could no longer maintain the 130-year-old dam, which was classified a hazard.

Now “it’s a beautiful wetlands in a wildlife area,” Mr. Walsh said.

Mr. Philbin, the MMA analyst, said a dam is one of the biggest impediments to fish reproducing and then flourishing.

Dams raise the water temperature, resulting in pollutants from stormwater runoff being contained in the water body, and reduced amounts of oxygen in the river, which doesn’t allow the river to clean itself.

Mr. Philbin commended the division of ecological restoration because, when breaching is necessary, the agency has learned that this has to be done slowly, resulting in lesser amounts of sediment or pollutants being released. The pollutants can wash down and lead to large fish kills.

Through the efforts of MMA, Mr. Philbin said, the state also banned phosphorous in fertilizer, which he called a top pollutant that can get into rivers, streams, lakes and ponds. This causes enormous growth of algae and plant life, which, when they die, robs oxygen from the water body, also contributing to large fish kills.

Contact Brian Lee at brian.lee@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BleeTG


Mass. dams ripe for removal, to benefit of fisheries