Mill River, Massachusetts

In an effort to restore the Mill River in Massachusetts and reconnect it with the Wild and Scenic Tauton River, the Hopewell Mills (2012), Whittenton (2013) and West Britannia (2018) dams were removed. These removals, plus the installation of a fish ladder at a fourth dam, reconnected more than 50 miles of mainstem and tributary habitat for fish, reduced the risk of flooding, removed public safety hazards and returned the river and the surrounding ecosystems to a more natural state.

The Story

West Brittania Dam | Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region
West Brittania Dam | Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service Northeast Region

The Mill River flows for 4 miles from Lake Sabbatia into the free flowing Wild and Scenic Taunton River. The Mill River is an important tributary of the Taunton because it provides critical habitat and spawning grounds for fish migrating from the ocean through Narragansett Bay. In the 1800s, a series of dams were constructed on the Mill River to provide water and power for the town of Taunton and the surrounding area. Over time, the dams destroyed fish runs important to native people and early colonists, altered healthy ecosystems and became major safety hazards to the local community.

Whittenton Dam.
Whittenton Dam. After the dam nearly failed in
2005, the wooden structure was removed and trap
rock (rip rap) was dumped in front of the dam to
stabilize it. Unfortunately, the structure still
impounded water and not only restricted fish
passage but also killed fish by straining them out
onto rocks | Photo by Inter-Fluve

In 2005, the nation’s attention was turned to Mill River when Whittenton Dam came close to failing during a storm that resulted in the evacuation of thousands of local residents. The crisis was averted, but if the dam had failed, a wave of water would have rushed through downtown Taunton, destroying many buildings and threatening the lives of the town’s residents. This event highlighted the decaying condition of the dams on the river, which by that time had become outdated and obsolete and were no longer serving any useful purpose.

In response to this near disaster, American Rivers, The Nature Conservancy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration and others formed a partnership and initiated the Mill River Restoration Project. The project sought to remove Whittenton Dam, Hopewell Mills Dam and Britannia Dam, and to construct a fish ladder at Moreys Bridge Dam. The goals of this project were to reduce the risk of flooding in Taunton, to provide migratory and resident fish, such as river herring, yellow perch, chain pickerel, American eel, alewife and trout, uninhibited access to upstream spawning grounds and habitat, and to restore the river to a more natural state.

Hopewell Mills Dam | Photo by Rachel Calabro, Narragansett Bay Riverkeeper
Hopewell Mills Dam | Photo by Rachel Calabro,
Narragansett Bay Riverkeeper

After years of planning, Hopewell Mills was the first of the structures removed in 2012, followed by the construction of a fish ladder on Moreys Bridge Dam in the same year. The removal of Whittenton Dam took place in 2013, and finally West Britannia Dam was removed in 2018. Since the project’s completion, the river has begun to take back its natural channel as sediment held behind the dams for hundreds of years settled out and river banks emerged that had previously been submerged under water.

Dam Removal Benefits

  • 30 miles of mainstream and tributary habitat reconnected in the upper Taunton Watershed
  • Enhanced instream habitat and upstream passage for migratory and resident fish— river herring and sea lamprey have been spotted upstream of the dam sites for the first time in over 200 years
  • Return of critical fish runs provide a source of food for many marine species in Narragansett Bay, such as striped bass, summer flounder and ground fish that are important for commercial and recreational fishing
  • Risks associated with flooding reduced, no longer threatening local residents
  • People can more freely recreate on the river without fear of the safety hazards posed by the dams
  • Estuary health has improved in Narraganset Bay, and biodiversity has increased from the bay to the headwaters of the Mill River

Hopewell Mills Dam (aka State Hospital Dam) before (left) and after (right) removal | Photos by Inter-Fluve

Through a partnership of nonprofit groups and state and federal agencies, the Mill River has been restored and reconnected to the ocean. Although monitoring continues to take place, critical fish runs have returned and the health of the river and the surrounding ecosystems are rebounding from hundreds of years of being dammed and degraded.

Amy Singler | American Rivers |