Mill River Dam Removal Opens Up Waters for Fish

 Demolition of the 85-foot West Britannia Dam began last week. (©The Nature Conservancy)

Demolition of the 85-foot West Britannia Dam began last week. (©The Nature Conservancy)

By ecoRI News staff

TAUNTON, Mass. — Work is underway to remove the West Britannia Dam, a river restoration project that will complete a 12-year initiative to remove obsolete dams on the Mill River. The multi-partner initiative is opening more than 30 river miles and 400 acres of lakes and ponds to migratory fish.

Demolition of the 85-foot dam, which was built in the 1800s, began last week, according to The Nature Conservancy.

The Mill River is a tributary of the Taunton River, which empties into Mount Hope and Narragansett bays and is the longest undammed coastal river in New England. With West Britannia Dam’s removal, migratory fish, including native alewives and blueback herring, will be able to move between Narragansett Bay and the Mill River’s headwaters for the first time in nearly 200 years. The removal of the dam, which is in poor condition, also benefits public safety.

“Removing an obsolete dam does more than release a river — it restores a route for migratory fish to reach their spawning grounds; it opens opportunities for people to enjoy the outdoors; and it allows communities to live without fear of flooding caused by dam failure,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Northeast regional director Wendi Weber said.

West Britannia Dam was built as part of a mill complex previously owned by Reed & Barton, a silver-manufacturing company. It’s now owned by Acuity Management, following Reed & Barton’s declaration of bankruptcy in 2014.

The dam’s removal is the work of several collaborating partners, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Restoration Center, The Nature Conservancy, and Acuity Management.

Funding for the work was provided in part by the U.S. Department of the Interior Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience funds, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Natural Resource Damages Trust, and the NOAA Restoration Center through a Coastal and Marine Habitat Restoration grant.

“This river restoration supports the largest coastal watershed in Massachusetts to not only improve local community resilience, but also restore passage by river herring and other sea-run fish to access valuable upstream habitats. These migratory fish are prey for popular recreational and commercial fish, such as striped bass and cod,” said John Bullard, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region.

The West Britannia Dam will be the third dam removed, with a fourth being repaired and outfitted with a fish ladder, as part of a larger Mill River restoration project, which began in 2007 and has involved conservation organizations, state and federal fisheries and wildlife agencies, the city of Taunton, and local planners.

In 2012 and 2013, the nearby Hopewell Mills and Whittenton Mill Pond dams were removed. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation also built a fish ladder at the reconstructed Morey’s Bridge Dam forming the outlet of Lake Sabbatia.

The near-failure of the Whittenton Mill Pond Dam during a severe rain event in 2005 led to the evacuation of downtown Taunton at a cost of about $1.5 million. While the dam didn’t fail, and emergency measures were taken to stabilize the dam, the event helped catalyze the Mill River restoration partnership, as well as federal, state, and local support for the removal of unsafe and poorly maintained dams.

“The Whittenton Mill Pond Dam emergency on the Mill River in 2005 galvanized action across Massachusetts to take out dams at risk of failure; a dozen years later, dozens of obsolete dams have been removed, protecting communities and benefiting nature,” said Wayne Klockner, state director for The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts. “For The Nature Conservancy, the West Britannia Dam removal represents the culmination of a remarkable collaboration to create a safer Taunton and a healthier and more vital river.”