Stairway to Fish Heaven

To the casual observer, the Bradford Dam may appear to be one with nature. The dark gray stone is weathered and chipped from over 200 years of holding back the Pawcatuck River’s flow, and green shoots have wormed their way into the structure, prying pebble-sized bits loose.

To migratory fish, however, the dam in Westerly, R.I., remains what it’s been since it was built: a sheer 6-foot wall keeping them from their traditional spawning grounds upstream. And although a fish ladder helps species like American shad and river herring get past the dam, it can’t accommodate them all.

Grasses and saplings sprout from within the dam structure. Credit: USFWS

For this reason, the Fish and Wildlife Service has partnered with The Nature Conservancy to replace this unnatural impediment with a nature-like step pool. The pool will resemble a series of natural falls – or, if you squint, a short flight of stairs – and will be easier for fish to traverse.

The step-pool design will include a 10-foot-wide channel allowing canoes and kayaks to pass easily through the area. It will eliminate an awkward portage for paddlers almost immediately downstream of the popular boat launch at Bradford Landing.

The project is supported by $1.98 million of federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience projects. Following tree removal and construction of a bypass channel this month, work on the dam will begin in July.

According to Service Northeast Regional Director Wendi Weber, in addition to improving fish passage, removal of the Bradford Dam will reduce local flooding and eliminate the risk of dam failure in future storms.

The Pawcatuck River flows gently through the forests of Rhode Island. Credit: USFWS

“We’re proud to join with The Nature Conservancy in strengthening natural defenses along the Atlantic Coast to protect communities and wildlife against future storms,” Weber said.  “By connecting and opening waterways like the Pawcatuck River, we can improve flood control, restore habitat for fish and wildlife, and contribute to the local economy and quality of life.”

The Service has been working with partners for several years to dismantle obsolete dams like the Bradford, which impede river flow without offering benefits to people or wildlife. Another project on the Pawcatuck, removal of the White Rock Dam, was completed in 2016 with great success – one year later, migratory fish counts are the highest in 15 years, and recreational and commercial fishing has improved.

“Dam removal and fishway construction allow fish and other aquatic species use of more and better habitat critical for their survival in southern New England’s rivers,” said Scott Comings, associate state director for The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island.

The Bradford and other dam removal projects represent a watershed moment for the Pawcatuck: not only will fish find easier, safer travels on their way upstream, but paddlers and anglers will enjoy 22 miles of unimpeded water, and local residents will be better protected from flooding. The removals are, both literally and figuratively, a step in the right direction for the river and the community.

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