A Dam Along The Jeremy River Comes Down So Fish Can Go Up
When someone says you lack vision and imagination, you might take it as an insult. But not when it came from Steve Gephard, a supervising fisheries biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
He spoke those words in a general manner as we stood on a rock ledge overlooking the remains of the Norton Paper Mill and its dam being crushed into hundreds of chunks of broken concrete. He looked through the dam and painted an image of the Jeremy River flowing freely through a rocky gorge for the first time in centuries. He spoke of species like Atlantic salmon and sea lamprey passing through on their way to more than 17 miles of pristine waterways once blocked by the 20-foot-high dam.
And he was right, I never saw it. For years, I’ve loved seeing the brick and steel shell of the mill along Route 149 in the Westchester section of Colchester up against the concrete dam. It was a showcase of human industrial history when it once tamed Mother Nature. I loved it when water would thunder over the dam during the spring freshet and a sense of awe would draw you in.
But with 4,000 dams, the Connecticut River watershed is the most dammed in North America. And the DEEP and The Nature Conservancy have the daunting task of removing the dams whenever funding is available. The Norton dam is the largest one to be removed in the state.
“These mills that were along the river is what gave our state prosperity and so back then it was a good thing,” Gephard said. “But now these mills don’t serve any purpose. The dams don’t serve any purpose and they are degrading our streams. The DEEP has put a priority on restoring migratory fish to the state’s waters and we can’t do that without addressing the problems with dams.”
The project is a collaborative effort with the Conservancy, which secured funding for the dam removal and river restoration from the U.S. Department of Interior’s Hurricane Sandy Habitat Restoration fund. The Wasniewski family, which owned the mill, sold it to the town for $1 and signed off on the dam removal and river restoration plan. The town received a $350,000 small town economic assistance grant to demolish the mill and create a riverside park to be called Norton Park.
The Jeremy River — named after Jeremy Adams, one of the first settlers of Hartford — begins in Hebron and flows through Colchester before merging with the Blackledge River to form the Salmon River, one of the cleanest waterways in the state. The Salmon flows through Colchester, East Hampton and East Haddam and into the Connecticut River.
Sally Harold, the Conservancy’s director of fish passage and river restoration, said the removal is “so critical for habitat restoration and restoration of access to habitats upstream of the dam.” The work will help resident fish like brook trout and migratory species like blueback herring and American eel.
“It supports species resiliency,” she said. “You are talking about a dam that goes back to 1726. That’s nearly 300 years of having a barrier preventing fish going downstream and migrating upstream. With the dam, you have less aquatic diversity.”
“When the Indians were here fishing for salmon, this was a bedrock gorge with the water tumbling down,” Gephard said. “It was beautiful. And we are going to bring those conditions back. We know that and we just need to show the people how to envision that when the dam is gone. …We’ve been around to know what the potential is.”
The dam along the Jeremy River is coming down. And fish, eels and lamprey are going up — hopefully way upstream. And that’s a good thing. I just needed to have a vision to see it.