Whittenton Dam Removal

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Eight years after a near-tragedy brought public attention to Whittenton Dam, the dilapidated structure is being removed, due to efforts by the Mill River Restoration Partnership. The Whittenton Dam removal project is being executed both to ensure public safety and to restore the ecological health of the Mill River.

In 2005, Whittenton Dam dam made national news, when a portion of downtown Taunton was evacuated and a state of emergency declared, following heavy rains. Thousands of people were driven from their homes, with schools and businesses closed for several days, after the 170-year old wooden Whittenton Dam buckled and threatened to send a four-foot wall of water through the city.

The incident brought the risks posed by Massachusetts’ 3,000 dams into sharp relief. Most of the Commonwealth’s dams are more than a century old, and many long-obsolete dams have fallen into disrepair. Just 10 percent of the state’s dams still provide energy, drinking water or flood control.

The Whittenton event prompted state leaders to action – first with a statewide effort to better document the safety of various structures – then, in late 2012, with state legislation that provided funding for dam removal and repair efforts.

A partnership of nonprofit groups and state and federal agencies has brought about the Mill River Restoration, a project that includes the removal of three dams and the instillation of a fishway at a fourth dam on this important Taunton River tributary, allowing migratory species like river herring and American eel to access an additional 30 miles of river habitat as well as upstream lakes and ponds.

Whittenton Dam is the second dam to be removed as a part of this project, but it is the most deteriorated, and has, in fact, become representative of the problem with aging, dangerous dams.

The 2005 crisis prompted the formation of the Mill River Restoration partnership that has led the dam removal project, as well as legislative efforts to make the removal and repair of aging dams easier for Massachusetts communities.

Last summer and fall, the Hopewell Mills Dam, located just downstream from the Whittenton Dam, was removed and already, sea-run fish like river herring, are returning to the watershed.

This spring, the first river herring in nearly 200 years was spotted upstream of the former Hopewell Mills dam site, making its way from Narragansett Bay to inland spawning areas.

The Taunton is one of the only free-flowing rivers in New England, and restoring fish passage to a major tributary like the Mill River will have great significance for the river’s famed herring run, which is already one of the largest in the region.
Many more fish will then return to Narragansett Bay, where they will feed the groundfish that are so critical to New England’s commercial fishing industry and culture.

“The Mill River has the potential to support one of the larger river herring runs in the state,” said John Catena, Regional Supervisor for NOAA’s Restoration Center.

The Mill River Restoration Partnership includes dam owners, Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District, MA Division of Ecological Restoration, NOAA-Restoration Center, The Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Save The Bay, American Rivers, US Fish and Wildlife Service, MA Division of Marine Fisheries, MA Department of Transportation, Massachusetts Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership, Mass Audubon, Taunton River Watershed Alliance, and the Massachusetts Environmental Trust.

source: Mill River Restoration Partnership