Judy Waters: Mill St. dam removal a boost for Housatonic River

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LUNENBURG — The summer of 2019 brings a new "first" to the West Branch of the Housatonic River. Soon the river will flow freely for the first time in over 100 years at Pittsfield's Mill St. dam site.

Work has finally begun this August on the Mill Street /Tel Electric Dam removal ("Pittsfield armed with more money as it readies to remove Mill Street Dam," Eagle Aug. 17). "Dam removal works," says American Rivers.org. In 2018, 82 dams were removed in 18 states, Massachusetts among them.

Some dams still serve a purpose; many are remnants of a previous industrial era. The granite and concrete, 120 -year old Mill Street dam, found to be unsafe, was connected to a former piano player factory. In a 2017 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave most U.S. dams a "D" grade. Massachusetts has about 3,000 dams.

In the 19th century, author and theologian John Coleman Adams visited Pittsfield in summer, publishing "Nature Studies of the Berkshires" (1899). In his chapter, "The Berkshire River" Adams praised a beguiling, shimmering Housatonic River, while denouncing the "sluices and dams" that constricted it, and the dyes that "poisoned" it as it flowed to the Long Island Sound.

Pittsfield historian John Dickson's ("Berkshire County's Industrial Heritage" 2017) describes "as many as 30 dams" along the Housatonic River. A 1910 photo depicts dozens of workers, "a group of men working teams of horses and pulleys for a new dam on Mill Brook in East Lee."

Dams obstruct wildlife habitat. According to Mass. Wildlife's Climate Tool, turtles, salamanders, beaver, mink and otter travel along rivers and streams, and their habitats are highly vulnerable to dam obstruction. Dams can fragment "habitat connectivity," making it harder for wildlife to survive. Climate change increases that vulnerability. Removing a dam helps wildlife survival.

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River restoration may be part of dam removal. Prior to 1972, U.S. rivers were plagued with pollution. A turning point for rivers was the Clean Water Act of 1972. Dam removal can help improve river water quality. In 2019, climate change challenges rivers with storm run-off and flooding.

For generations, pollution limited access to the Housatonic River. Pittsfield's General Electric Company dumped PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) into the river from the 1930s to the 1970s. A protracted, environmental history is still ongoing (Rest of River, epa.gov). The river endured historic neglect; dam removal will help fish survival and public access. Advocacy has brought canoeing and parks.

With the change at Mill Street, two stories emerge. One is growing awareness about dams and their harm to river ecology— it's about freeing rivers, reclaiming natural flow. But there's also the story of Pittsfield and post-industrial economies. Natural beauty has drawn visitors and residents to Pittsfield for two centuries and the Housatonic River is an integral part of that beauty.

Pittsfield and other Massachusetts Gateway cities share struggles of economic change, of vulnerable neighborhoods and issues around crime. With revitalization comes a vision — though challenges are complex — of better public safety. Outcomes await; the Mill Street dam removal could help brighten a dim spot along the Housatonic River's West Branch.

Success stories are growing. In Maine and on the West Coast, salmon returned, as dams had blocked spawning. The Sackett Brook dam removal at Pittsfield's Canoe Meadows supported the rare wood turtle, according to Mass Audubon. The Hathaway Brook dam removal in Dalton helped trout survival. Some dam removals have let Massachusetts towns re-purpose open space ("The Dam Problem", Boston University, 2018). Bird survival also benefits from a healthier river, according to the Housatonic Valley Association. Rivers become more resilient to climate change; as the risk of flooding is reduced. Negative impacts, if any, are usually few or temporary, according to American Rivers(.org.

A change is near. The Housatonic River will return to its natural flow along Pittsfield's West Branch at Mill Street. Soon the sound of a rushing river flowing along its banks will replace the crash of water over a spillway. It's about change, enjoying a river and a city, the past and the future. Clean water and healthy rivers are precious and need to be protected.

Ultimately, the Mill Street dam removal is a new link in the history of restoring the Housatonic River — for wildlife and for those who live in, work in and visit Berkshire County.

Judy Waters is a Pittsfield native and former Richmond resident.


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