River Impossible: The Hazard of Whittenton Dam and the Mill River Restoration

Whittenton Dam, Mill River, MA | Brian Graber

Whittenton Dam, Mill River, MA | Brian Graber

In 2005, the Whittenton Dam nearly failed, forcing 2,000 people to evacuate homes and businesses in downtown Taunton, Massachusetts. As the Mill River swelled around the dilapidated dam, senators, a governor, and CNN gathered and assessed the site. The dam was built to power a mill more than a century before, but it hadn’t served that purpose for decades. But like so many other dams, it remained in the river, a hazard that was nearly realized.

The dam ultimately did not fail, but was emergency stabilized with a temporary fix – dumping an enormous quantity of rock on the downstream side of the dam. The river is gradually eroding its way around that temporary fix, and the big rocks strand fish as the water level fluctuates over them.

This Spring, American Rivers and its partners are removing this hazardous and environmentally damaging dam for good, once we pull together the final funding needed to complete our years of work. Along with eliminating a public safety hazard, removing the dam is part of a larger project that will allow hundreds of thousands of river herring to once again migrate each year to spawn in Lake Sabbatia and elsewhere upstream.

Rendering of the river before and after the Whittenton Dam has been removed | Interfluve

Rendering of the river before (left) and what is expected after (right) the Whittenton Dam has been removed | Interfluve

The Mill River flows into the Wild & Scenic Taunton River, which flows freely all the way to the coast and has one of the most vibrant herring runs in the northeast. This will be an incredible result for the Mill River, where herring were completely eliminated decades ago by dams and pollution. Conditions in the Mill had gotten so bad, that a state fisheries biologist, David Belding, reported in 1920, “Since it is badly polluted by manufacturing wastes, and obstructed by dams, the re-establishment of the old fishery is an impossibility.” Tim Watts, a local activist, recently induced an audience with chills by proclaiming at a project gathering, “Welcome to River Impossible”.

The other parts of the River Impossible project include: the Hopewell Mills Dam, the most downstream of the Mill River dams, was removed in Summer/Fall 2012; the Morey’s Bridge Dam, which augments the water level of Lake Sabbatia, is having a fish ladder installed now and should be completed by the Spring 2013; and the West Brittania Dam, downstream of Whittenton, is currently in design for removal, and that project is scheduled for implementation in Fall 2013 or Summer 2014.

Altogether, the projects will open 29 miles of river for herring and many other species, including stretches of very high quality habitat. You can read a lot more about the projects and track our team’s progress.

It is not often that one project can have such tremendous benefits for both public safety and river ecology. The project has resulted from years of persistence by American Rivers, Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration, the Nature Conservancy, Southeast Regional Planning and Economic Development District, NOAA Restoration Center, Save the Bay and many other great partners. We will continue to update you as our work comes to fruition.

  • Scroll through the images below to see the dangerous and dilapidated condition of the Whittenton Dam: