Bradford Dam’s Removal will Help Fish Migrate, Improve Paddling and Reduce Flooding

By ecoRI News staff

The Bradford Dam from downstream. (Nils Wiberg/Fuss & O'Neill)

The Bradford Dam from downstream. (Nils Wiberg/Fuss & O'Neill)

BRADFORD, R.I. — Work crews recently began carving a temporary bypass channel around the Bradford Dam on the Pawcatuck River in preparation for the structure’s removal next month. The dam will be replaced with a more natural step-pool design, allowing more fish to swim upriver to their traditional breeding grounds and eliminating the risk of flooding from a catastrophic dam failure.

Bradford Dam is a 6-foot-high, 200-foot-wide structure built in the mid-1800s to support a riverbank mill. The mill has been idle for many years, and the dam has since fallen into disrepair, losing chunks of rock downstream in several recent major storms. In its current state, the dam restricts the movement of migratory and resident fish and is at risk of failing and causing a major flood during another powerful storm, according to the Rhode Island chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

The dam’s removal is part of an effort to open up the 31-mile-long Pawcatuck River and associated wetlands for migrating American shad, alewife, blueback herring, American eel and sea-run trout. Removal of the dam will improve connectivity for all of these species, many of which have historic breeding grounds that lie farther upstream, according to TNC.

The step-pool design will also include a 10-foot-wide channel allowing canoes and kayaks to pass easily through the area. It will eliminate an onerous portage for paddlers almost immediately downstream of the popular boat launch at Bradford Landing.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Northeast regional director Wendi Weber said the removal of the Bradford Dam will reduce local flooding and eliminate the risk of dam failure in future storms.

“Healthy rivers are lifelines for communities in the Northeast, providing recreation, water quality, strong economies and other benefits,” Weber said. “By connecting and opening waterways like the Pawcatuck River, we’re helping wildlife thrive and creating more resilient communities for people.”

Before the dam itself can be removed, crews must clear the work area next to the river to make way for a bypass channel. The channel, along with temporary cofferdams, will divert water away from the dam, leaving it accessible for demolition. The clearing, demolition and eventual restoration of the area are being performed by SumCo Eco-Contracting of Salem, Mass., with engineering assistance provided by Fuss & O’Neill of Providence.

The $1.8 million project is being overseen by TNC and is supported by $821,000 in federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience projects. The funds are part of a $1.98 million cooperative agreement between TNC and the Service for the Pawcatuck River, which included the removal of the White Rock Dam and improvements to the Potter Hill Dam fishway. Additional funding was provided by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the Rhode Island Coastal and Estuary Habitat Restoration Fund.

TNC raised the balance of the project funding from The Champlin Foundation, the Bafflin Foundation, the Horace A. Kimball and S. Ella Kimball Foundation, the Rhode Island Foundation and individual donors.

“It’s been a two-year process, but the outcome makes it all worthwhile,” said Scott Comings, associate state director for the Rhode Island TNC. “We can’t wait to see the dam gone and the river flowing freely again. It will make a tremendous difference in terms of the quality of the habitat and the ability of fish to migrate. And it will be a lot easier to paddle through there safely.”

The Pawcatuck River is being considered for designation as a federally protected Wild and Scenic River. The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System “preserves certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.”

Demolition of the dam is expected to begin in earnest in mid-July, with the river returned to its natural channel by late December. Restoration of the cleared area will take place the following spring. The mill will be protected as part of the Bradford Village Historical District. Archaeologists from the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission will be on site to take photos and document the removal process, in case there are tribal or other objects underneath the dam structure.