ANDOVER — For fish, kayaks and canoes, the Shawsheen River is just about open for business.
State officials visited the Balmoral and Stevens Street dams Friday as the projects to tear down the dams are coming to an end. The dam removals were designated as priority projects by the Massachusetts Department of Fish & Game in 2008 and have since received $1.3 million in state and federal funding.
Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton visited both dams Friday afternoon along with representatives from the Department of Fish & Game and its Division of Ecological Restoration as well as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Members of local organizations supporting the removal were also on hand.
“I’m glad I could end the day somewhere that is of personal great interest to me, being an avid fly-fisherman,” Beaton said. “It’s a pretty amazing project to see the before’s and after’s, and to realize the ecological benefits, the economic benefits, the recreational benefits, the climate-change adaptation benefits, and see it all come together.”
Removing the dams will open up about four miles of the Shawsheen River and reintroduce 16 acres of habitat to migratory fish, including alewife, blueback and herring.
“The dams blocked the fish from access to habitat where they reproduce,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologist Bill Bennett said. “By removing the dams, we’re really restoring access to these fish that they haven’t had access to in 200 years.”
Steve Golden of the Shawsheen River Greenway Association said that along with restoring the natural history in Andover, removing the dams will also create opportunity for residents and visitors to canoe, kayak, and fish on the river. Golden and the association plan to host a fish count in April, when volunteers will be invited to help count herring as they swim along the river.
Tim Purinton, who directs Fish & Game’s Division of Ecological Restoration, said projects like these do a lot more than just improve wildlife and ecological conditions.
“It’s kind of the rebirth of a river,” Purinton said. “In some ways, these projects are much more than the environment piece, more than the fish and the water quality. It’s really about the community getting reconnected to its river.”
Purinton was also able to secure nearly $1 million in federal funding through the Department of the Interior’s Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant Program. Last year, Andover Town Manager Andrew Flanagan dubbed 2017 “the year of the downtown.” Getting the dams removed from the river and creating a more interactive environment for residents is one part of a larger plan to incorporate the Shawsheen River into the downtown area.
Both dams were built to support wool mills and each carry historical sentiment, but neither serve a functional purpose and have ultimately been abandoned. Had the dams not been removed, the town would continue to carry an increased risk of flooding to areas surrounding the dams.
Balmoral Dam has been removed, with small pieces of stone the only thing remaining to help support the stone walls to which the dam was attached. Crews are still working at the Stevens Street Dam, also known as the Marland Place Dam, removing remnants of the dam and preparing the banks to be topped with grass.
Officials said crews and construction vehicles should be out of the Stevens Street Dam area within two weeks, leaving the river wide open for fish, canoes and kayaks.