What a River Means
At one point, the Mill River was declared "dead." Now, alewife are running the river again for the first time in two centuries.
The Mill River is very much alive.
To someone living in Taunton a century ago, the renewed health of the river—which flows through the city’s downtown before emptying into the Taunton River and eventually Narragansett Bay—would likely come as a surprise.
In 1921, a Massachusetts state report declared the Mill River dead, at least as far as alewife were concerned. These fish had once spawned in the river in mindboggling numbers. “Since it is badly polluted by manufacturing wastes and obstructed by dams, the reestablishment of the old fishery is an impossibility,” the report concluded.
Yet today, after more than a decade of work to remove the dams that obstructed the river, spawning alewife have been documented on it in the last few years, and the larger river system—the Taunton River watershed—is remarkably vital.
“Our investment in the restoration of the Mill River is having a positive impact on fish recovery, the overall health of the watershed and community safety,” says Alison Bowden, who initiated The Nature Conservancy’s part in this ambitious project and directly led it for many years.
A Long Time Coming
Taunton earned its historic moniker “Silver City” from industries that set up shop near the Mill River downtown. There were four dams within one mile when the idea of a Mill River restoration project first gained traction in the mid-2000s. By then, none of the dams had supported industrial uses in decades.
Rendered obsolete with the decline of heavy industry in the area, the dams sat there, blocking spawning fish from upstream habitat and creating largely useless impoundments that were often filled with badly polluted sediment and more.
Then came the near-failure of the Whittenton Mill Pond Dam during heavy flooding in 2005. Authorities evacuated downtown Taunton at the cost of about $1.5 million. While the dam did not fail, and emergency measures were taken to stabilize it, the event helped catalyze the Mill River restoration partnership, which involved conservation organizations, state and federal fisheries and wildlife agencies, the City of Taunton and local planners.
The partnership took out Whittenton Mill Pond Dam and nearby Hopewell Mills Dam, while the Massachusetts Department of Transportation constructed a fish ladder at an additional site in 2013. That year, an underwater camera spotted the first alewife running up the river in two centuries, one of roughly 1,000 that would migrate upstream to spawn that season.
Then, many of hours of work later, in winter 2017-18, TNC in Massachusetts and partners took out the 85-foot long West Britannia Dam. It was the culminating action of the initiative. The dam removals on the Mill River reconnected 30 miles of river and 560 acres of spawning habitat with the larger Taunton system.
“It’s amazing. You can put in a boat in downtown Taunton and take it out to Providence or Narragansett if you want to,” Bowden says. “There’s nothing in the way.”
The River to Recovery
During the 2019 migration season, nearly 7,000 river herring ran up the Mill River, and in 2020, the number was over 13,000. Gizzard shad, American eels, sea lamprey and other species have also been seen in higher numbers. In the larger Taunton River system, monitoring has confirmed that American shad are spawning, and there have been numerous river otter sightings.
The results seen in the Taunton River watershed are mirrored in other river systems across the state. Massachusetts saw its highest river herring returns in three decades in 2019—four runs had over half a million fish migrating.
As river herring are a critical link in the coastal and ocean food web, understanding which restoration actions ensure self-sustaining fish populations is key. TNC is also working to improve the health of migratory river herring when they’re at sea by studying the location and timing of unintentional bycatch of these fish and trying to help fishermen avoid the large schools of alewife and blueback herring.
A Whole System
The year 2018 marked more than just the return of spawning alewife in the Mill River. The City of Taunton also opened the Weir Village Riverfront Park on the Taunton River, downstream from the Mill River’s confluence with it. A stunning beautification of the former industrial site of F.B. Rogers Silver Co., the park features a 1,000-foot-long waterfront walkway, a boat and kayak ramp and a fishing pier.
It also includes strategically placed raingardens, a nature-based solution in which soils and plants help absorb and filter stormwater run-off from a parking lot and nearby street. TNC was proud to have played a role in supporting—with funding from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection—the creation of the raingardens.
“There is still a lot of work to do,” Bowden says. “But this is a time when we all should celebrate.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Roger Desrosiers and Donna Desrosiers— also known as Gray Fox and Spirit Fox—who represent the Dighton Intertribal Indian Council on the Taunton Wild and Scenic River Stewardship Council. The Taunton River was added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in 2009.
“Now, people come from all over to utilize the river,” says Donna Desrosiers. “The new boardwalks along the water and the drop-in areas for kayaks and canoes—it’s great that access has opened up and it’s easier for people to connect with the river.”
Roger adds: “The Taunton River was the Natives’ highway. It connected towns up and down the area. It’s great to see it being used like that again.”