Waterway Blockage, Beautiful & Beastly


Norton Mill Dam view from the bridge. Photo © Lia McLaughlin / USFWS through a Creative Commons license

Thanks to the Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science for this story:

Outtakes: Exploring America’s Most Dammed Waterways


Sally Harold has one eye on the river and one on the cars whizzing by as we stand on a road near the freeway. A river restoration specialist for The Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut River program, she’s showing me a map of the state, obscured with dots representing dams. To our left, a burned-out mill building looms over a small river. To our right, the road that leads northeast to Hartford.

“This is an attractive nuisance,” she says, pointing to the burned-out shell. “There were two fires—one in the late 1800s and another one in the early 1900s. … I always think it looks like a movie set.”

“A creepy one,” I say.

It’s October 2015, and I’m in town reporting a story for Nature Conservancy magazine about the removal of defunct dams. Harold has offered to show me a few in her state, but we’ll barely scratch the surface today—there are more than 4,000 dams here.


Morning view of Turner’s Falls canal on the Connecticut River, Massachusetts. Photo © Jerry and Marcy Monkman

Commuters speed by and Harold continues running through the obscure history of this industrial relic. I’m realizing that she and the people she works with are part project managers, part scientists, part archaeologists digging through layers of history.

This mill once made paper that went into the heels of shoes, Harold tells me, which is important because it means toxic dyes used in textile mills weren’t leaked into the river. The current dam beside it dates to the 1930s. It’s about 17 feet tall, 65 feet across. I’m here in a drought and the only water passing from the stagnant pool behind the blockage to the narrow brook downstream is trickling through a crack in the foundation of the mill. This is the state of a remarkable number of rivers in New England today, and it’s devastating to migratory fish, Harold says.

“What happens with a dam is the water slows down,” she says. “It backs up behind the dam and rises to the top.” She rattles off a list of affected species—river herring, eels, brook trout, Atlantic salmon. A water builds up behind a dam, it slows down and warms, changing the habitat below. And, even if a dam doesn’t affect a species’ habitat, fish simply can’t access it. If Harold can open up this dam, she says, these species will have something like 17 more miles of habitat. It’ll take a feat of organization though. She’ll have to line up funding, engineering reports, contractors, the dam owners and get the support of town residents.*…

Read the whole story here.

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