MYSTIC, CONNECTICUT (The Westerly Sun) - Sally Harold pointed to a portion of the Anguilla Brook that flowed past the remnants of a dam at the end of Lane Way.
“It’s probably been 100 years since water flowed here,” she said.
It was a hot day in August, a time when stream levels are typically low, but the water was running. And so were the fish, which had been prevented from swimming upstream for as long as the man-made earthen dam stood.
“Resident fish and migratory fish weren’t able to get beyond the dam,” said Harold, director of river initiatives and diadromous fish for the Connecticut chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
After two years of planning among several organizations, the dam was removed last week, along with its quarried stone spillway. The work is being hailed as a victory for both the environment and the safety of people who lived downstream.
According to Harold, the dam was built approximately 100 years ago to power a mill that stood beside the river. “They think it was a cider mill,” she said. “It probably had many uses.” Today, a small portion of the mill structure remains by the river, mostly hidden by brush. Rusted metal pieces nearby were part of the turbine, Harold said.
Among the species that will benefit from the dam’s removal is brook trout, which thrives in cold, clear water. The pond that had built up behind the dam was warmed by the sun, and the more water is warmed, the less oxygen it contains. The colder, flowing water contains more oxygen, which is better for the trout.
Eels and river herring, such as blueback herring and alewife, will also benefit from the river’s new configuration. Both species are diadromous, meaning they migrate between fresh and salt water during their lifetime. River herring live in Long Island Sound, Harold explained, and migrate to fresh water habitats to spawn. Eels have a reverse lifestyle; they spawn in the Sargasso Sea, far south in the Atlantic, and then move to fresh water, returning to the sea only to spawn.
The Anguilla Brook once had so many eels that it was named after them; the scientific name for the American eel is Anguilla rostrata.
“There’s lots of eels in here. We saw them yesterday. It’s appropriately named,” said Harold.
She also expects an increase in mussels upstream, she said. Mussels travel on the gills of fish, so as the fish numbers increase, so will the number of mussels.
The dam has been a concern to residents in the area as well, because officials have worried about the dam’s integrity during major rainstorms.
“From the storms that we had, we could see there was a concern with this dam,” said First Selectman Edward Haberek Jr. “It’s definitely a welcome relief for future storms.”
Over the past four years, Haberek said officials considered evacuating the neighborhood downstream from the dam three times. They carried through on two of those evacuations. The dam never broke, and the neighborhood, sometimes called Bird Land, didn’t flood. But the dam did overtop during heavy rainfalls, Haberek said.
Removal of the dam has been a project two years in the making, beginning after the unprecedented March 2010 rainfall. Avalonia Land Conservancy teamed up with The Nature Conservancy to apply for grants and get the process started. They found funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
The main benefit to removing the dam is fish migration, said Avalonia President Duncan Schweitzer.
“It’s primarily a fish-passage issue,” he said.
Like Harold, he noted that not only will the fish be able to move upstream without the dam, but the quality of the water will also improve.
“Fast moving water is generally healthier water,” he said.
Schweitzer, a civil engineer, disagreed that the dam was a major safety issue, “but taking down the dam lessens the anxiety of people in the area,” he said.
The project could not have been completed without the consent of the property owners, Bill and Linda Rutan. Both Harold and Schweitzer praised the Rutans for their cooperation and assistance with the project. The Rutans could not be reached for comment on Friday.
With the dam gone, one more step is needed for the fish to head upstream. There’s a second dam, further downstream in Wequetequock Pond, which was created when a glacier dragged a boulder into the water. There was a colonial gristmill on the site, powered by the moving water. Because it’s a natural dam, Harold said, it won’t be moved, but a fish ladder will be built to help fish make their way across. Some of the smaller stones from the Rutan’s dam will be taken downstream and used to build the fish ladder.
Together, the projects will help not only the fish and the residents of Bird Land, but the entire Anguilla Brook watershed.
“It’s not just the local impact,” Harold said. “It’s the whole system that benefits.”
Copyright 2013 The Westerly Sun
Updated 490 days ago Article ID# 1709589