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Undamming the future of the Charles

Situated just behind the aptly named Charles River Apartments, the Charles is right in Brandeis’ backyard, but is likely on the periphery of our busy lives. This river, once a polluted wasteland, has undergone massive cleanup initiatives and improvements over the past few decades. It’s an environmental success story, but one that is far from finished. 

As part of Our Local Waterways—a new course in the Environmental Studies Program taught by Sally Warner (ENVS)—I have been spending a great deal of time learning about the Charles River, which is about as local to Brandeis as you can get. In mid-October, our class took a trip to Watertown to learn about one of the major impediments to the health of the Charles: dams. 

Our class was graciously hosted by the Charles River Watershed Association (CWRA), a non-profit organization that played a crucial role in the cleanup of the Charles. Robert Kearns and Dira Johanif greeted us as soon as we got off the BranVan—the CRWA’s Climate Resilience Specialist, and Urban Resilience Advocate, respectively. As we approached the dam, the sound of rushing water quickly intensified. “I always say this would be a great place to come and tell someone your secrets,” Kearns shouted over the noise. 

Watertown, to our east, was the first but not the last section of the Charles that was dammed. These dams were initially built for industrial purposes, taking advantage of natural changes in elevation to generate power. This was at the expense of the food sovereignty of the Massachusett and Nipmuc people, as the structures interfered with the passage of migratory fish, one of their major food sources. Now defunct and dangerous, the Watertown dam, along with the other old industrial dams on the Charles, are reminders of native dispossession, as well as the ecological impacts of altering the river’s flow. 

Upstream of the Watertown dam, we could see that the water was moving at a snail’s pace, impeded by the dam. This stagnation causes warmer temperatures and pollutant accumulation, resulting in cyanobacteria blooms, a type of blue-green algae that produces harmful toxins. Downstream, the water moved quickly, creating a layer of white froth. This rushing water erodes the river’s bottom, which is bad news for the benthic macroinvertebrates (think: river bugs) that call it home. 

Additionally, migratory fish still suffer from the effects of dams, despite the existence of fish ladders which are intended to serve as passageways. Investigations have shown that the Watertown fish ladder does not pass female shad, as they can’t easily jump. It is also located in a shallow edge of the river, counter to where fish would likely be drawn. The fish ladder can even get cut off entirely from the river during droughts, such as the one we have recently experienced. As climate change contributes to more extremes, we may see more frequent droughts, exacerbating the toll on migratory fish. 

Luckily, there is something that can be done to address havoc wreaked by dams: remove them. The Charles River Watershed Association, among many of their valiant initiatives, is on this very mission. They are currently focusing on the Watertown Dam, which is considered politically “low hanging fruit,” as its removal has been debated for several years. Geographically, it’s one of the first dams along the Charles going upstream from Boston Harbor, so its removal would allow migratory fish to go just a little bit further than they previously could.

An important initial step in the dam removal process is to build awareness around the negative impacts of these structures so as to gain the support of community members. Dira pointed out that many people have sentimental attachments to dams; maybe it was where they got married, or something they grew up with. Robert added that a lot of people like the view, though personally, he likes the view of a naturally flowing river. 

Of course, the bureaucratic obstacles are even more daunting, as the CWRA has to convince the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to make dam removal a priority. To a government agency responsible for various issues, dam removal may not seem like the most pressing issue at any given moment, but the longer these old dams remain in place, the more they degrade the river’s ecosystem, and the more likely they are to fail, which could be life threatening.

The price tag on dam removal is also a significant obstacle towards putting it at the top of DCR’s agenda. Robert explained that the process unfolds over several years; it involves consulting with engineers, navigating the legal system, and ensuring that the infrastructure around the dam will be sufficiently altered to withstand the changes in the river’s flow. Between all of this, dam removal is certainly an investment; yet, the recurring expenses of dam inspections when no action is taken would surpass this.

The good news is that dam removal is not an impossible pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It has happened well within our lifetimes, producing success stories that can be drawn on for future projects. For instance, the removal of the Old Mill Dam in Bellingham was initiated in 2017, and the ecosystem’s health has already seen remarkable improvements. Just a couple weeks ago, the town of Natick voted to remove a 90-year-old dam, a moment of victory in the dam removal movement.

The phrase “nature restores itself” is often applied liberally or over-simplistically, but in the case of dam removal, there’s a significant element of truth to it. One of the main challenges is gathering momentum toward removal. If we build awareness about the environmental degradation caused by dams, and the cascade of improvements following removal, we can move towards a healthier river, a healthier ecosystem and a healthier Massachusetts, one damn piece of concrete at a time.

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