And Let the Dams Come Down

This month’s Ripple cross-posted from Hilltown Families:

Life Will Return to Our Rivers!

The challenge we (who value these nonhuman lives) face is to turn the immense powers we have to obstruct life into powers that liberate it.

Sweet as maple syrup, the thaw is coming.

Sea lamprey, shad, herring, alewives, eels, sturgeon and the last of the salmon: all are sensing it, as they swim far offshore in the (comparatively) warm ocean. Exactly how they sense the return of Spring remains unknown, even to the brightest marine biologist; but our lack of comprehension, alone, will not prevent their return. Our dams will.

Every dam we remove increases the chances that our native anadromous fish—and all the other creatures (birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles) that feed upon them—will thrive. For this reason, I long ago joined the Connecticut River Watershed Council, which has a laudable record of success in removing the obstructions that block fish passage.  In the words of the Council:

“Besides creating healthy riverbanks, much of [our] restoration work aims to remove obstacles that block or hinder fish and other animal’s movement throughout the watershed. This means we remove dams, build fish ladders or other structures that allow for fish to get past dams that remain and replace culverts and other road crossings that act like dams. Creating fish and aquatic animal passage helps reestablish natural cycles in rivers, allowing migratory fish, mussels, amphibians, turtles and a host of aquatic invertebrates access to critical habitat to reproduce.” (

The challenge we (who value these nonhuman lives) face is to turn the immense powers we have to obstruct life into powers that liberate it. We, and our recent ancestors, have never summoned a good reason to justify our killing off of the families of our migratory fish, except that of short-term economic gain. That excuse is undercut by the fact that the water-polluting industries that used the dams are long gone, having been exported to Asia.

Holyoke dam will never be pulled down, at least as long as it provides electricity to that burgeoning city, but downriver of it, in West Springfield, is the mouth of the 3-branch Westfield river, which

“drains about 528 square miles of southwestern Massachusetts. It is one of the most beautiful and pristine of the rivers of southern New England. In the 1990s, 43 miles of the upper Westfield were designated “Wild and Scenic” by the National Park Service – the first such designation in Massachusetts!” (Source:

There are no dams that obstruct the migration of fish from the Atlantic Ocean to the mouth of the Westfield. It is possible, therefore, to remove a few obsolete dams and/or install fish-passages that actually work, so the 528 square mile watershed can (again) provide a home for the fish families that are going extinct,and provide Western Massachusetts with an economy of life perennial.

The Knightsville dam in Huntington has no fish ladder, and blocks the passage of fish on the East Branch of the Westfield river. Upstream of it, the East Branch is—ironically—federally listed as “Wild and Scenic.” It’s actually pretty dead (all the migratory fish killed off by the dam) to the extent that our precious tax dollars are used to transport and dump tank-raised fish into it so license-buying fishermen have a reason to cast a line there. We will save a lot of money, and have our migratory fish back where they belong, when we install a passage at Knightsville. Then, the scenic East Branch will deserve to be called “wild.”

Spring is coming, and with it the green sprouts of hopeful new life. Ice is stacked six feet high on the sides of the frozen East Branch as I type these words, envisioning the warm March rains that will raise the waters and break the iron-hard ice-dams. Far out in the ocean, the fish can feel it, too. Soon enough, they’ll be coming home.

[Photo credit: (cc) D.R. Davis]

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