To the editor:
I am writing to express my disappointment in the Town of Newbury selectmen's recent decision to leave the Larkin Mill dam to crumble and fail rather than further explore options to proactively and safely remove the dam. I would also like to applaud the Dec. 13 Daily News editorial titled "Byfield dam ought to be removed," which highlighted many of the reasons why I believe this decision was unwise.
As a river restoration scientist at the Ipswich River Watershed Association (IRWA) and coordinator of the regional Parker-Ipswich-Essex Rivers Restoration partnership (PIEr2), I work to promote efforts to preserve and, where possible, increase our waterways' ability to sustain fish and wildlife. Removing the Larkin Mill dam seems like a great opportunity to improve conditions on the Parker River, while removing a safety and legal liability from the town's books, a real win-win situation for the citizens of Newbury.
Dams are a major (though by no means the only) factor in the decline of many fish species. Migratory fish like river herring are extremely important ecologically and as a major food fish for commercially valuable fish species (including cod, striped bass and tuna). Removing dams that are no longer in use, like the Larkin Mill dam, has been shown to be a cost-effective, permanent solution to restore natural river conditions and increase a river's capacity to support these migratory fish.
Dams are inherently dangerous, and dam owners (in this case, the Town of Newbury) assume the associated legal liability. Even small "run of river" dams like this pose significant safety risks to those who might boat, hike or fish in the vicinity. They can be an attractive nuisance, inviting children to explore and play on them. When a dam fails, the downstream surge of water and sediment can cause major property damage at the dam owner's expense.
I find it disheartening that the selectmen seem to have completely ignored the advice of bona fide experts from the Mass. Division of Ecological Restoration and NOAA who have extensive experience with projects like this across the region. They, instead, chose not to act based on mere speculation about water quality and spill containment issues presented by the local fire and water departments. This dam was not designed to contain a highway spill and should not be expected to do so. The dam removal permitting process ensures that any contamination issues are accounted for in the project design before permits are issued. Thus, there is no inherent risk in choosing to move forward.
This decision leaves an unused, dilapidated structure to collapse on its own, rather than take action to make it safer for people and fish. I fail to see how this decision serves the people of Newbury or the surrounding communities. I strongly suggest that the selectmen reconsider their position on this issue and that the citizens of Newbury encourage them to do so.
Restoration Program Manager
Ipswich River Watershed Association