By Robert Miller
When, in the late 18th century, the Industrial Revolution knocked, the state of Connecticut swung the door open, providing start-up money for textile mills.
The vast transformation from farming village to factory towns needed water for power. An industrious people responded by building more than 4,000 dams, across rolling river and rushy brook alike.
“We’re one of the most densely dammed states in the country,” said Steve Gephard, supervising fisheries biologist at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “In rivers like the Aspetuck, you can stand on one dam, look upstream and see the next.”
Gephard spoke about breaching those still-standing, now-profitless and environmentally detrimental dams at the Norwalk River Watershed Association’s annual meeting, held last week at the Wilton Library.
Removing them, he said, can reverse the damage done by a century or more of impoundments. Sludgy river bottoms get washed clean. Migratory fish return. Freshwater fish flourish. So do aquatic insects and birds and river-loving mammals, like otter and mink. So do freshwater mussels.
People who, once they see the river running free, catch on.
“When we do one of these, people in the next town over say ‘Why can’t we do that?’ ” Gephard said. “I say, ‘You can.’ ”
This reverse transformation — back to a free-running river — is happening on the Norwalk River. The Flock Process Dam in Norwalk has been removed. The Cannondale Dam in Wilton has a six-foot wide breach in it — wide enough to let fish migratory fish swim upstream.
And after years of opposition, the town of Wilton now favors removing the Merwin Meadows Dam — aka the Dana Dam to locals. Remove that and the Factory Dam in Georgetown, and the entire 21 miles of the Norwalk River will be open. Migratory species like river herring, American eels and maybe even shad, could return.
“I’m feeling really good about it,” Gephard said.
But that good feeling comes with realism born of experience. This won’t happen overnight.
“For me, getting a project completed in five years is fast,” Gephard said.
“We’re one of the most densely dammed states in the country.”
Steve Gephard, supervising fisheries biologist at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection
At last week’s meeting, Cheryl Daigle of the High-stead Arboretum in Redding, also spoke of her work removing dams on the Penobscot River system in Maine.
The Penobscot River is much grander than the Norwalk. The largest river system in Maine, it has 8,570 square miles of watershed compared to the Norwalk River’s 4,000-acre watershed.
The Penobscot River Restoration Project’s aim was to restore 11 different species of diadromous fish — those that spend part of their life cycle in fresh water, part in the sea — to the river system. It had to deal with 113 dams in the watershed.
Daigle spoke about how this was done. In part, she said, it meant attending community meetings and environmental festivals — any place to get the message out.
“We went to hundreds of meetings,” she said.
While the project had its stars, including the federally endangered Atlantic salmon, Daigle said one of the most important fish an East Coast river system can have is alwewives — migratory herring that provide food for the entire ecosystem.
“Alewives, I think are the superstars of river restoration,” she said.
In western Connecticut, the Housatonic River is dammed for the foreseeable future by the hydroelectric system now owned by First Light Power Resources.
But Mike Jastremski, water conservation coordinator the Housatonic Valley Association, said the Housatonic’s main tributary — the Naugatuck River — now runs free for 27 miles thanks to dam removal and fishway construction.
The HVA has also run a multi-year project to replace aging culverts in the Housatonic watershed. Again, Jastremski said, these improved culverts allow fish and streams alike to move more freely.
“Restoring stream habitat is essential,” he said.
In every town, there are people who will argue that old dams prevent flooding, Gephard said. But the opposite is true.
There are also people who are used to having the old mill pond in town — the place where they had their first kiss, or caught their first fish. It takes a steady dose of public education to make them see things differently.
“There hasn’t been a dam removal project that hasn’t been met with resistance,” Gephard said. “And when it’s finished, people are overjoyed. Including the critics.”
And for those who say these old dams are important remnants of the state’s industrial history?
“I say native fish runs are historic,” Gephard said. “They were here before the Native Americans.”