PITTSFIELD -- The removal of the Sackett Brook dam at the Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary in Pittsfield will be the city's way of making up for disturbing more than 1.6 million square feet of wetlands at the city airport.
The dam removal, which was completed last month in a project led by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, is being accompanied by new plantings.
In 2010, the city of Pittsfield began a massive elimination of more than 120 acres of trees, wetlands and other potential obstructions to expand a runway safety area at the airport. The expansion of the safety area was meant to meet Federal Aviation Administration guidelines.
As a result, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) granted a variance, or waiver, to the city to allow it to disturb the protected wetlands in exchange for doing the dam project.
In stepped the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which owns the land at the Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary, to take out the 1930s-era concrete dam at Canoe Meadows.
Rene Laubach, director of Berkshire Wildlife Sanctuaries of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, said the mission of the project was "to bring Sackett Brook to a more natural state," he said. The dam, Laubach said, cut off 81 2 miles of the brook's waterflow.
"This reconnects the stream and makes it a fast flowing, cold stream," Laubach said. The work is expected to benefit fish and protected wood turtles by removing the blockage of the stream, speeding up the flow and allowing more space to move.
The dam was originally built by a private homeowner to create a pond for fishing, Laubach said. A descendant of the owner donated the property to the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
Right now, the society is busy planting vegetation and trees along the banks of the stream to help keep the water cool by providing shade. Laubach expects the planting to be completed by the end of the month.
Pittsfield conservation officer Rob Van der Kar said the project precedes his tenure, but that the city has not had much involvement with it. The DEP has been in charge of overseeing the variances and permits, he said. The decision to approve the mitigation was done by the DEP.
"We were kind of left out of the bulk of the negotiations," Van der Kar said.
Laubach said the cost of the project is about $400,000 of the work. Van der Kar said the city's share of that work is $125,000.
Lealdon Langley, director of the DEP's Wetlands and Waterways program, said the agency signed off on trading up the wetland impact for the dam removal project in 2009 under former DEP Commissioner Lauri Bert.
"We encourage that kind of project," he said.
When disturbing wetlands, one of the criteria for mitigation is the replacement of those wetlands.
"The ability to create an additional riverfront area is limited" though, Langley said.
More than 1.6 million square feet of wetlands was disturbed, including more than a million square feet of vegetated wetlands, 661,711 square feet of riverfront area wetlands, 2,000 linear feet of the stream bank, 5,466 cubic square feet of bordering land subject to flooding and more than 6,000 square feet of land underneath the stream.
So the agency looked to a dam removal project that had been proposed before but was sitting on the shelf.
The project was about "stream continuity" and to "maintain stream hydraulic flow," Langley said.
"It's a considerable environmental improvement."
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