Multi-part project aims to improve Amherst’s Fort River

  • Looking upstream from the center of Fort River in Amherst. A bridge belonging to the New England Central Railroad runs over the river toward Montague and was re-constructed in 1939. The area downstream leads to Puffers Pond. Ktr101/via Wikimedia

Staff Writer
Published: 7/23/2021 2:59:02 PM

AMHERST — Vulnerable to contamination, and with climate change potentially bringing more frequent and more severe storms that increase bacteria levels, the Fort River is a constant worry for those who appreciate the natural resource and worry about its long-term health.

To promote the well-being of the river and the habitat it supports, and improve the water quality for people who use sections of the river to cool off during the summer, Amherst officials and volunteers are in the midst of a multi-pronged approach that includes making significant improvements to one of the river’s main tributaries, completing regular testing of its water, and preserving open space at the former Hickory Ridge Country Club, where 1.4 miles of the river traverse the greens and fairways.

“We want this river to be healthy, we want this river to be clean and we want this river to be swimmable for humans,” says Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek, director of conservation and development for the town. 

Ziomek said he views the Fort River as special due to its rare and endangered species, including the dwarf wedgemussel. It is also the Connecticut River’s longest undammed tributary, where ocean migratory fish can use it to spawn.

One of the immediate projects, set to commence in the coming weeks, is creating a new flood plain for the Fearing Brook, a mostly underground tributary that extends from downtown Amherst parking lots and culverts on College Street before tying into the Fort River near South East Street and Belchertown Road.

Beth Willson, environmental scientist for the Department of Public Works, said this new wetlands area will be at the last 500 feet of the brook at the Fort River Farm Conservation Area.

This $300,000 project, with $276,000 coming from a federal Environmental Protection Agency grant, is being handled by Flynn Enterprises Inc. of Raynham with oversight by SWCA Consultants of Amherst.

Willson said the idea is to excavate back existing berms and use plantings and slow the flow of water so that it will have more opportunity to spread out and infiltrate the ground, along a 40-foot-wide swath, which will remove bacteria, nutrients and hydrocarbons from the urban stream.

“Wetlands are a natural flood plain protection,” Willson said.

Ziomek said not all problems with the brook can be solved at the end, and the town has made sure the culverted and piped brook is cleaner. A few years ago, several catch-basin markers were placed throughout downtown serving to remind people about the dangers of dumping contaminants into them and polluting Fearing Brook.

For Brian Yellen, a research professor at the University of Massachusetts and president of the Fort River Watershed Association, the new floodplain is an exciting development.

“The restoration project is a piece of the pie, and one example of many for improvements to the habitat,” Yellen said. 

Yellen said because the watershed, running through Shutesbury, Belchertown, Pelham and Hadley, supplies a lot of drinking water and passes by recreation areas, his group is doing regular testing at both the Amethyst Brook Conservation Area and at Groff Park.

This year, Sylvie Hope, who will be a senior at Amherst Regional High School, is taking samples that are analyzed for bacteria. The main goal is to make Fort River swimmable everywhere, he said. Results of the tests can be viewed at https://connecticutriver.us/.

In the recent years of doing these tests, this year has been among the toughest for water quality due to the higher flows, Yellen said. “That makes it all the more urgent to make these improvements,” Yellen said.

The acquisition of Hickory Ridge, though 26 acres will be put into solar, will mean less intense use of the property, with fewer herbicides and chemicals and better protection of vernal pools, Ziomek said.

Amherst is also planning to use $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding for connections of trails between neighborhoods to the north of the former golf course.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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