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Removal of Old Dam to Restore Habitat, Protect from Flooding

The North Bellingham Dam, a relic of industrial mill days, interrupts the natural ecosystem. Hopes are that its removal will restore natural order as well as create wetlands that protect from flooding.

By Sydney Keane
Following a rainy summer and general wetter weather patterns due to climate change, flooding of rivers and wetlands are of increasing risk. Up and down the Charles River, unused and crumbling dams sit untouched, interfering with natural habitats and generating downstream flooding. The Charles River Watershed Association and the Bellingham Department of Public Works are partnering to restore the natural habitat at our North Bellingham Dam.
Located off a branch of the Charles River that flows through northern Bellingham, this dam was found to be unsafe following a 2022 inspection and evaluation report, deeming it a Significant, or Class II, hazard dam during its Phase I inspection.
According to Robert Kearns, a restoration specialist from the CRWA, “The North Bellingham Dam is approximately 6 feet tall with a 60-foot partially breached spillway and over 200-foot-long structure… and is a relic mill dam that has been partially breached on both sides through weathering and storms.”
In general, the several defunct dams that line the Charles River threaten to flood by over a foot in intense rain scenarios, which have become more frequent. Additionally, the abandonment of several of these dams has created interference with surrounding habitats and areas, contributing to unwanted vegetation like cyanobacteria in the water. Additionally, the erosion of concrete, slopes, and other aspects of these old structures creates spillage. Overall, dams like the North Bellingham Dam are in less-than-ideal condition, and opening up the wildlife passage may do wonders for the surrounding nature and neighborhoods. 
With a number of concerns, total removal of the North Bellingham Dam is in the best interest of public safety and conservation alike. Though the North Bellingham Dam is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), it falls within the Natural Valley Storage Area (NVSA), so Mass Wildlife manages the land through easements in partnership with the ACOE. 
Wetlands, including those managed by NVSA, can function as a nature-based solution to mitigating downstream flooding. This dam, then, remains as a relic of the times when the Charles River fueled industrial mills. Today, also, the North Bellingham Dam is eroded from many years of weather, making it essentially useless.
Stakeholders are assessing the removal of the dam. On a local scale, restoring this area would improve the water quality by preventing the pooling of water and lowering the temperature to alleviate the negative conditions of the natural ecosystem. More extensively, the ecological restoration of this area would reconnect about 8 miles of waterflow from the Charles River, extending through Franklin and Medway.
Ecological restoration also allows for natural wildlife passageways, creating more interconnectivity among aquatic creatures such as the fish that travel through the waters. Decades of data are available on the conditions of the area thanks to a number of water quality assessments conducted by volunteers sampling the river since 1995. Experts conclude that removing the Bellingham North Dam could be a successful step toward restoring the vibrant array of aquatic wildlife that has long defined Massachusetts waterways.
If you are looking to learn more about this project and its progress, as well as the ecological restoration of other dams along the Charles River, seek out the River Interrupted Storymap by the CWRA for a comprehensive overview. For a look into the bettered state of Bellingham’s ecosystems as a result of dam removal, consider visiting the site of the Old Mill Dam, removed in 2007, to observe the rushing water and thriving habitat in its place. 
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