Fishing for a dam change

BILLERICA — The Talbot Mills Dam won’t celebrate its 313th birthday next year if a public hearing scheduled for June 29 moves forward on the long-proposed dam removal project.

One of nearly 3,000 dams in the state, the dam on Faulkner Road in the Historic District is distinctive for the disruption it poses to both animal and human habitat.

The dam is the primary impediment to diadromous fish passage (migrating between salt and fresh water) in the Sudbury, Assabet and Concord rivers. These fish, which include Blueback and Alewife herring — a protected species — American shad, American eels and sea lampreys, live mainly in the ocean, but they spawn in fresh water in the three rivers. That’s the largest acreage of fish habitat in all New England, according to the Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust.

“Restoring the fish habitats is one of the goals of this project,” said Jill Griffiths, a water resources engineer and ecologist with Gomez and Sullivan, an environmental and engineering restoration firm that will present the feasibility study to the public next week.

The 316-foot-long dam only stands 16 feet high, but it is rated as a “significant hazard” — or level 2 on a three-point scale — by the Massachusetts Office of Dam Safety. And while that means that a catastrophic dam failure would result in no probable loss of human life, it could cause economic loss, environmental damage, disruption of lifeline facilities and other community concerns. According to the National Inventory of Dams, a database maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the dam was last inspected in 2015.

“Even though it is a smaller dam, the effects of this dam actually extend all the way up into the Sudbury and Assabet rivers, which is about 11 miles upstream,” Griffiths said. “If the dam were to catastrophically fail, a large volume of water would go downstream very quickly.”

The dam was erected in 1710-11, then rebuilt in 1798, and the present-day earth and masonry dam was constructed in 1828 right at the juncture of the Concord River and the Middlesex Canal. Over the centuries, its water power served as a grist and lumber mill for the area.

The dam, says resident Marlies Henderson, has been contentious since 1710.

“Early colonists who occupied the Great Meadows upstream lost land to the rising water level created by the dam,” she said.

That condition still exists today with homes along the Concord River on the west side experiencing flooded yards and basements, Grifiths noted.

The project to address the dam sat for a few years until ownership was determined and more funding was secured. The main funding to date has been the Nyanza Natural Resources Damage Fund, overseen by a trustee council comprised of representatives from the state Department of Environmental Protection, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. These partner agencies will also be present at the public meeting.

“The main purpose of this public meeting is to bring the conversation about the dam back out in front of the community,” Griffiths said. “We want to answer questions and address any concerns before we begin the permitting process.”

Henderson plans to attend the meeting and is in favor of the dam removal project.

“You restore a river by making it a free-flowing river” she said. “Losing a 300-year-old dam will be a major change, but what we could get instead is exciting.”

The public meeting on the status of the Talbot Mills Dam Removal Project is scheduled for 6:30 to 8:30 pm on Wednesday, June 29, at Town Hall. Those interested can attend in person or via Zoom at bit.ly/3tQRR5I.

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