Tag Archives: dam removals

A River Runs Free in Rhode Island

Not so long ago, mills were the lifeblood of their communities, harnessing the currents of the Northeast’s rivers to produce lumber, flour, and cotton and woolen goods. Rhode Island was home to many of the early textile mills that brought the Industrial Revolution to New England, with dozens of dams built in the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed alone.

Only a few generations have passed since the mills were in use. But today many of these dams are no longer gateways to prosperity; they have aged into perilous barriers, blocking migratory fish runs and presenting potential liabilities to the communities they once served.

Suzanne Paton at WR copy

“We’re really trying to step back and look at a landscape scale,” says Service biologist Suzanne Paton. “Everything is connected.”

Supported in part by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy and other partners are removing these dams to restore a natural flow to the Pawcatuck River. Opening and connecting the river helps improve fish habitat and reduces the risk of flooding in towns along the river’s banks. It also helps enhance recreational opportunities like fishing and kayaking and supports local economies.

Follow the story of the river’s restoration as conservation leaders like Service biologist Suzanne Paton work to bring the Pawcatuck back to life.


Yield of Streams: If you remove it, they will come

Little feet tread through slushy April snow and approach the railing, peering over the edge of the bridge into the cold, flowing water of the Shawsheen River in eastern Massachusetts.

“I see one!”

They counted them 1,2,3.

The Joshi family children shouted out numbers as silver blue blurs glided through the dark water.

“We counted 95,” recalled Andover resident Jon Honea. He explained that this meant that as many as 425 passed by when volunteers weren’t watching.

They were counting river herring­­ – alewives and blueback herring, two closely related species of migratory fish that hadn’t been seen in the river for nearly two centuries.

And while river herring are no Shoeless Joe Jackson, their homecoming to the Shawsheen points to the success of the recent removal of the Balmoral and Marland Place Dams.

“All you have to do is make space,” said Honea, member of the Andover Conservation Commission and an environmental science professor at Emerson College.

Tracking the herring’s return to the Shawsheen River was a community affair, drawing over 250 volunteers. Residents from the Atria assisted living facility – whose residence was threatened by increased flood risk from the dam – joined the fun, alongside Andover high school students and dedicated families like the Joshi family, who counted multiple times every week.

“The removal of these two dams not only increases the resiliency of the Town of Andover, but reconnects the community to the river by restoring lost recreational opportunities and natural ecological processes upon which we all rely,” explained Bill Bennett, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.

Not only were these dams a public safety hazard – heightening flood risk and threatening paddlers – they also blocked the travels of migratory fish throughout the river.

Dams prevent rivers from flowing naturally, impairing water quality and interrupting natural stream processes that both people and wildlife populations rely on.

Partners and volunteers have already documented a steady reappearance of river herring in the Shawsheen, but other wildlife such as American shad and American eel are also expected to arrive.

These removals opened up 4.1 miles of the river and restored 16 acres of wildlife habitat, allowing these fish to reach spawning grounds that are critical for their survival.

Though these smaller fish aren’t coveted by anglers, they are eaten by other wildlife such as larger game fish – like striped bass – shorebirds, raptors and river otters.

Snapping turtles and great blue heron have also been observed enjoying the free-flowing state of the lower Shawsheen River, below the remaining Ballardvale Dam.

Jane Cairns of the Andover Historical Society explained the rich history of the Shawsheen River, mentioning that the Marland Place Dam supported mill operations in the town, even powering a site that at one point supplied gunpowder to George Washington’s Continental Army.

She, like Honea, is also a member of the Shawsheen Greenway, an organization focused on making the Shawsheen River corridor a vital recreational, cultural, transportation, and educational resource for the entire community and region.

“We’ve been reminded, as many other communities have before us, that a clean and healthy, free-flowing river is a significant asset for the town, and can provide a boost to both our recreational and business resources,” Cairns said.

Nick Wildman, a restoration specialist from the Massachusetts Department Fish & Game, has been involved with these removals since 2009. He called the projects a “public investment for public benefit,” adding that the dam removals along the Shawsheen River represent a resurgence of the place that rivers have in our lives.

It doesn’t end there. Though public safety and stewardship of the river and fisheries were paramount to community leaders, fewer dams are a home run for experienced paddlers, who no longer have to transport their boats around the dams on land.

“The newly opened stretches of the river are quite beautiful and exciting,” Honea said. “There are long stretches with just forest on either side and several newly accessible drops, including a couple very exciting rapids.”

“These projects are not possible without strong partnerships between the federal, state, and local communities,” Bennett said.

Some of these partners embarked on a celebratory paddling trip in May to explore the newly free-flowing Shawsheen River.

Three canoes set out on the river. Eric Hutchins of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Bill Bennett of the Service in one, Nick Nelson of Interfluve – a national firm focused on river restoration – and his son in another, and Andover’s Conservation Commissioners, Jon Honea and Floyd Greenwood, in the third boat.

While paddling, Hutchins and Nelson noticed a gizzard shad also exploring the newly restored river.

“Rivers are the lifeblood of our nation and their stewardship is of the utmost importance,” Bennett said.

The town sees it the same way.

“The Town of Andover is very excited about the removal of the dams – many people see this as the start of a real renaissance of the Shawsheen,” said Bob Douglas, conservation director for the Town of Andover. “Our residents are looking forward to being able to paddle the unbridled Shawsheen from the Ballardvale mill district, through the center of town, all the way to the mighty Merrimack.”

Protecting People, Helping Fish and Wildlife

Georgia Basso, Service biologist for the Service's Southern new England-New York Bight Coastal program pictured here in

Service biologist Georgia Basso enjoys working with local youth to ignite a passion for nature. Credit: USFWS

Situated on the Jeremy River in Colchester, Conn., Norton Paper Mill is attached to one of several dams set for demolition. The mill building could be written into the pages of a Stephen King novel: fires and neglect have gutted much of the interior; the dilapidated roof is beyond repair; and surges of water shoot from cracks in the building’s foundation, becoming vertical geysers.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Georgia Basso, who is working with the Service’s Coastal Program to assess the removal of Pond Lily dam in Connecticut, says in the event of a big storm like Sandy, an obsolete structure like the Norton Mill dam could easily collapse, cause major flooding and create numerous threats for both wildlife and people.  

“Connecticut River native fish—such as alewife, blueback herring and Atlantic salmon—don’t have access to their spawning grounds because of these dams.” – Georgia Basso, Service biologist

Eastern Brook trout will also enjoy the benefits of having habitat access restored by the removal of Norton Mill dam in Colchester, Conn.  Credit: Robert S. Michelson of Photography By Michelson, Inc Brook trout

The Eastern Brook trout is one of several species of fish that will be free to move throughout the Jeremy River in Conn. – once Norton Mill dam is removed. Credit: Robert S. Michelson of Photography By Michelson, Inc Brook trout

Bolstered by nearly $102 million in federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery, the Service is working with partners to strengthen natural defenses that can help protect Atlantic Coast communities against future storms. Part of that strategy includes removing or evaluating 13 dams in 14 states. Nearly $7 million alone is being invested for on-the-ground conservation projects in Connecticut. These include five dam removal projects designed to create healthy habitats for fish and other wildlife, as well as reduce the risk of flooding to communities.  


Signs of restoration could be immediate instream – according to Service biologist Phil Herzig – once demolition is complete. Fish could be migrating within in a day or two. Atlantic salmon photo credit: USFWS

Service fisheries biologist Phil Herzig leads Sandy-funded dam removal projects for Norton Mill and Flock Process dams in Connecticut. According to Herzig, once a dam breaks, tons of built up water and sediment would be released into the surrounding areas. The damage and flooding caused could be monumental.  

Herzig says removing dams allows rivers to behave like rivers and gives fish an opportunity to live out their natural life cycle.

“Rivers tend to self-regulate if they’re healthy,” he says. “The benefit for fish and wildlife would be passage. Terrestrials as well as aquatics can move up and down without impediment.”   The result is a win- win investment to protect communities and help fish and wildlife.