By Lauri Munroe-Hultman
There was a time when small dams throughout the Northeast were the cores of their communities. Often the next major structure to be built after the church, the dam harnessed waterpower to process corn for sustenance and lumber for shelter. Later, dams produced energy to make textiles to be shipped far and wide, providing jobs and pumping dollars into local economies. Still others offered chances for recreation like swimming and fishing.
These days, many small dams have not only outlived their usefulness, they are liabilities for wildlife and local communities. Thousands in the Northeast are obsolete and not maintained. More than 25 percent are high-hazard, posing a big risk of failure that could flood nearby areas. Once central to community life, many dams are now barriers to progress, impeding economic growth, recreation, and tourism, while also blocking wildlife migration.
American Rivers, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., announced in February a list of 72 dams that were removed from waterways across the country in 2016, restoring more than 2,100 miles of river and stream habitat to a free-flowing state. Thirty-one were in the Northeast, with Pennsylvania leading the country for the 14th straight time, at 10.
The list includes several projects supported by the Service, such as removal of Hughesville Dam on the Musconetcong River in New Jersey, which will help restore fish and wildlife and water quality in this federally designated Wild and Scenic River. Or the removal of three dams on the West Fork River in West Virginia, which opened up 490 miles of habitat for endangered freshwater mussels and native species of fish, increased recreational access for paddlers on the water trail, and is even helping the Clarksburg Water Board save money on chemical costs to treat water.
Since 2009, the Service has worked with partners from Maine to West Virginia to remove more than 450 barriers to fish passage — including dams, culverts, and road-stream crossings — and connect nearly 4,000 miles of rivers, creeks, and wetlands. Since 2013, federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience projects has supported the removal of seven dams in the Northeast, with five more in process or scheduled.
Two dams on American Rivers’ 2016 list tell the story of how the Service and partners are helping communities adapt to changing conditions and realize a new vision of healthy, safe and connected river systems for people and wildlife.
Long Run Dam, near Allentown, Pennsylvania, was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935, to offer a place for employees at the nearby CCC camp to swim and fish. The 7.5-foot-high and 276-foot-long stone masonry dam blocked the free passage of wild brook trout and other fish. It had fallen into disrepair, and the area above the barrier was filled with sediment.
The Service’s Fish Passage Program funded the removal project, and multiple partners worked together to improve water quality and let trout reach important upstream habitat. Because the dam was historically notable, remnants were left both underwater and along the shore to allow access by those interested in the past.
According to Mark Roberts, coordinator for the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in Pennsylvania, “This project shows that when like-minded people get together, they can produce results that benefit both wildlife and local communities.”
The Norton Paper Mill Dam, on the Jeremy River in Colchester, Connecticut, was built in the early 1800s. Until the 1960s, the mill was the focal point of the Westchester section of the town, supplying jobs for villagers and nearby farmers alike. Nearly 20-feet high, it blocked the upstream movement of migratory fish, including Atlantic salmon, river herring, American eel, and Eastern brook trout.
In 2013, Nan Norton Wasniewski, a descendant of the original owner, chose to work with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the town to dismantle the mill and dam. The Service funded the effort through Hurricane Sandy recovery dollars. The removal of the dam in early November 2016 opened 17 miles of upstream habitat for migratory fish.
Wasniewski sold the property to the town for $1 to build a public park in her family’s name. Once a place of industry, the site is now a gateway to recreational activities, including paddling and fishing. Wherever possible and safe, artifacts from the mill will become features of the park.
According to Sally Harold, Director of River Restoration and Fish Passage for TNC in Connecticut, the Jeremy River is part of the high-quality Salmon River watershed, which is more than 60 percent forested.
“I live in Fairfield, Connecticut — about an hour outside New York City along the coast — and you can’t go anywhere on a river in that area without seeing houses,” said Harold. “On the Jeremy, you could canoe for an hour without seeing a single house.”
While damming a stream used to show progress, now letting water flow freely means growth. To have safe, healthy communities for both wildlife and people, we need thriving river systems. The Service and its partners are working toward that goal, one dam at a time.
(Lauri Munroe-Hultman is a writer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley, Massachusetts.)