Finding the connection on Amethyst Brook

Urban watercyle

American Rivers’ staff at Orient Springs Dam, MA | Bob Irvin

At American Rivers we like to say that rivers connect us, but how do you reconnect a river? 

That was the question I was pondering on a cold April day along the banks of Amethyst Brook in western Massachusetts.  One of the things that makes American Rivers so effective is that, in addition to advocating laws, policies and practices that protect and restore rivers and clean water, we are also leaders on the ground, working with partners and communities to remove outdated dams, establish Blue Trails, and construct green roofs and rain gardens

To get a better sense of that hands-on work, I had joined several of my American Rivers colleagues, along with colleagues from other organizations and government agencies, to learn what goes into planning a river’s restoration.

Amethyst Brook, which flows into the Fort River (a tributary of New England’s preeminent river, the Connecticut), is the site of one of our recent dam removal success stories: the removal of the Bartlett Rod Shop Company Dam in Pelham, Massachusetts.  The dam once powered a factory that made split bamboo fly fishing rods in the late 19th century.  The rods were highly prized by fishermen but, ironically, the factory’s dam blocked upstream passage for brook trout and other fish.  After the fly rod factory closed in the early years of the 20th century, the dam fell into disrepair and posed a safety hazard for the community. 

With American Rivers’ help, the dam was removed in 2012, reconnecting Amethyst Brook upstream of the dam site with more than 250 miles of downstream habitat for brook trout, American eel, and sea lamprey.  Once again, Amethyst Brook is providing fly fishermen with benefits, now in the form of enhanced fishing opportunities.

Above the dam site in Pelham, a much smaller dam remains at a place called Orient Springs, once a spa and source of bottled water.  While no decision has yet been made by the current owner to remove the Orient Springs Dam, it provided a useful location to determine how to restore a river.

Under the leadership of Brian Graber, Director of American Rivers’ River Restoration Program, we divided into teams to assess what Amethyst Brook’s natural configuration looked like and how the Orient Springs Dam has altered it.  With snow flurries in the air, team members waded the brook’s chilly waters with surveying equipment to develop a longitudinal profile and cross section survey, measuring the brook’s drop, velocity, and depth along its length and breadth above and below the dam. 

We used a shovel, scale, buckets, and increasingly finer screen sieves to determine the proportional composition of streambed sediments and whether any contaminant problems may exist.  We also delineated the extent of wetland areas adjacent to the brook, which are subject to special protection under state and federal laws.  And we assessed where a temporary road and staging area could be located for heavy equipment needed to remove a dam.

By making these measurements, the teams were able to develop a picture not only of what Amethyst Brook looks like today, but how it likely appeared before the Orient Springs Dam was built and how it could look again if the dam is removed.  In short, we learned how to reconnect a river.  And after we worked together in the water and along the banks to better understand the river, the river connected us.