At long last, Amethyst Brook dam comes down in Pelham

Last modified: Thursday, November 22, 2012

PELHAM — After an extensive permitting and review process, construction crews have begun to take apart the dam that straddles Amethyst Brook in West Pelham, signaling the end of the stone structure that had dominated the local waterway since 1820.

The decommissioning project, which is a partnership between the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration and several nonprofit entities, officially has been under way since 2007. The dam, off Amherst Road, and the small pond behind it, which once powered a fly fishing rod factory, had been defunct for decades when the current property owner, HRD Press, a business materials printing company, received a safety notice from the state indicating that the dam was no longer structurally sound.

Once the dam was slated for removal, the project attracted support from state biologists as well as national organizations that support ecological renewal and environmental safety, such as Clean Water Action and the Fish America Foundation. “This has been a long process with a lot of input from different people,” said Robert Carkhuff, head of HRD Press.

Alex Hackman, a restoration specialist at the Massachusetts DER, expressed enthusiasm at having broken ground on the site, the end stage of a process that he helped to bring to fruition along with HRD Press and the town of Pelham.

“This might look like a small project, but it’s going to have a big impact for the health of this waterway and the fish and insect species that live here,” Hackman said.

Like other tributaries in the Connecticut River watershed, Amethyst Brook is home to several aquatic species of interest to conservation efforts, including American eel, Atlantic salmon and sea lamprey, a saltwater fish that swims upstream to spawn and provide a safer habitat for its young before returning to the ocean. In addition to safety concerns, restoring an uninterrupted stretch of waterway to its natural state quickly became a priority for state and local officials as the decommissioning process moved forward.

Boyd Kynard, an environmental research analyst and instructor at the University of Massachusetts, has devoted extensive attention to fish populations in western Massachusetts.

“Eighty percent of our fish species in small brooks like this are migratory, and they bring nutrients and valuable resources to our habitat with them when they spawn and then die here,” he said. Kynard is a vocal supporter of the deconstruction effort, which he said will have a broad, positive impact on the health of the area’s ecology.

“Rivers and streams in western Massachusetts are relatively resource-poor because we had a glacial period in this region relatively recently in geological time,” Kynard said. “Giving fish and insect populations more space and more resources to breed will really help to address that.”

Town residents and public officials held several forums in the months leading up to the deconstruction, and Hackman worked with members of the town’s Historical Commission to retain a portion of the dam as a monument to its legacy along with a plaque indicating the significance of the structure.

“We had a lot of input and we were able to address a lot of people’s concerns right up front, which helped us move along smoothly,” said Hackman. “It’s wonderful when a community cares enough about its habitat to take an interest in something like this.

Initially built to provide water power for the Bartlett Fishrod Factory, which produced most of the fly fishing rods used in the United States for much of the 19th century, the stone dam was later used to manufacture machine tools and other equipment into the 1930s. After industrial activity ceased, the dam’s holding pool was used as a swimming spot until the 1980s. Hackman estimated that Massachusetts alone has up to 5,000 small industrial dams still standing, only a portion of which are documented. “Only a couple hundred of these sites still have any use at all, so it’s an ongoing process to identify the ones that we can take down safely and efficiently,” he said.

The removal process, which is budgeted at $193,000, is supported through state grants and funding from interested nonprofits, and is expected to take approximately four weeks. Much of the silt and excess stone will be returned to the site.

“The topsoil will eventually make its way downstream, which also adds more nutrition to the brook,” said Hackman.

Construction crews will create a “starter channel” to guide the brook back to its original configuration, but Hackman said that he’ll leave long-term repair work up to the brook itself. “The water will find its own way to where it wants to go,” he said.


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