The Department of Conservation and Recreation awarded the town of Plymouth a grant of $750,000 to fund the removal of the Off Billington Street Dam on Town Brook in Plymouth, Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, announced.
“This dam removal project is a top priority for the town,” Murray said in a release. “This project will improve upstream and downstream passage of resident fish and reduce the public safety risk. The town of Plymouth has been working on the restoration of historic Town Brook and its herring run for years and this funding will support a critical next step in this long-term effort.”
“This project represents a significant investment that will produce many long-term ecological benefits,” DCR Commissioner Edward M. Lambert said, Jr. “As an agency that strives to work cooperatively with local communities, DCR is pleased to be a part of efforts such as these to further important environmental goals like habitat enhancement.”
The Off Billington Street Dam is an 8.4-foot high dam constructed of earth fill with masonry walls. It is classified as a small dam and a significant hazard potential. The last inspection of the dam in 1998 concluded that the dam had significant operation and maintenance deficiencies.
The current design includes removal of the dam, installation of a bridge, and re-naturalization of the channel and floodplain. In addition to greatly improving fish passage, implementation of this restoration plan will result in improved sediment transport within the river system, elimination of a warm water impoundment containing contaminated sediment and excessive weed and algae growth, an increased level of dissolved oxygen through the formerly impounded reach, removal of impervious surface along the edge of the river and an increase in diverse riparian wetlands and habitat.
The Environmental Bond Bill passed by the Legislature in 2008 included $1.5 million for the removal of the Off Billington Street Dam and Plymco Dam. This project is part of an ongoing Town Brook Restoration project that includes previous dam removals, wetland restoration, fishway replacements, land acquisition and storm water improvements.
According to the DCR, the current work will open an additional 1.5 miles for herring access to spawning in Billington Sea and will restore habitat and connectivity for resident cold water species. Previous work on Town Brook involved the lowering of the weir at Water Street to allow for greater tidal flushing and smelt spawning, and creation of a natural stream bank and gravel bar at Brewster Gardens. Upstream, an Alaskan Steep-Pass fish ladder was installed at the Newfield Street Dam, and the Billington Street Dam was removed.
According to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, river restoration advocates hope Town Brook will be a model for other Northeastern waterways,
which, from Pennsylvania to Maine, are constricted by an estimated 26,000 dams, many of them no longer in use because industry has moved elsewhere, but still blocking the passage of species like herring, Atlantic salmon and shad. Opponents of dam removal say that the effort to save fish obliterates too much local history.
At the moment, New England dams are being demolished at the rate of a dozen per year. Scores are currently being considered for destruction in Massachusetts alone. Yet removing the dams—which can mean draining historic millponds, not to mention bulldozing and replanting river channels—changes the aesthetics of rivers and eliminates structures that may trace their roots back centuries.
Some worry that removing Town Brook’s dams will erase an important chapter of history. In its present form, the brook “is a microcosm of the evolution of American life” across four centuries, telling the story of how religious refugees became farmers and fishermen, then millworkers, and finally, suburban commuters, says Jim Baker, a Plymouth historian and author of Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday. “There’s plenty of brooks around and plenty of fish. But once you take out history, it’s never coming back.“
Town Brook has been a center of life and business in Plymouth since the English colonists landed in 1620, and long before. Colonists chose the brook because it meant a reliable source of fresh water after Cape Cod proved to have little more than sand. The Pilgrims built their houses near the brook, and learned to use the brook's herring from the local Wampanoags.
The colonists soon discovered even more uses for the brook. Almost totally dependent on European imports when they first arrived, they needed to manufacture necessities, and dams provided power. The first corn mills were built along the brook in the 1630s—prior to that, the Pilgrims pounded corn into flour by hand.
Other water-powered mills followed, to treat wool and, later, produce leather and snuff. The Town Brook’s mills became still more important after the Revolutionary War. Since much of the town fishing fleet was captured or sunk in the Revolution (the remainder was mostly finished off in the War of 1812), the locals were eager to find land-based employment in the mills, which soon focused on iron production and paved the way for the Industrial Revolution, making everything from nails to shovels.
As industry moved, the brook's dams fell into disrepair, but still prevented the herring from moving freely upstream to Billington Sea. The water became choked with weeds that killed off the remaining fish.
“The town of Plymouth is grateful for all the assistance that we receive for projects such as this,” Plymouth Town Manager Melissa Arrighi said in the release. “The removal of this dam improves both public safety and natural resources and Plymouth is fortunate that the Senate President’s office shares our local goals and helps the town achieve funding for that purpose.”