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Durham Town Council Votes To Remove Mill Pond Dam

The Mill Pond Dam in Durham, NH
Town of Durham
The Mill Pond Dam in Durham, NH

The Durham Town Council voted this week to move forward with the removal of the Mill Pond Dam on the Oyster River. The 7 to 2 decision comes after more than a decade of discussion over how to manage the dam and the waterway it impacts.

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Prior to the decision, the town received multiple letters from the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services warning of deficiencies in the dam. The council also reviewed a study showing the declining water quality of the pond that the dam created.

The current Mill Pond Dam was developed at the turn of the century to replace a timber dam built on the river in the 1600s. The early dam was one of thousands that supplied hydropower to towns during the colonization of New England.

Now, the dam supplies no power. Paul Pouliot, the Sag8mo, or head male speaker, of the Cowasuk band of the Penakook-Abenaki people, supported the dam’s removal as a matter of environmental justice. He’s working with the town of Durham to preserve the indigenous history of the site throughout the dam removal.

“These colonial dams, by the colonial English and Puritans, was always about industry, and no regard for the land and the people who were on it,” he said. “It was all about making money at the sacrifice of the Indigenous people, Indigenous foodways, foodways for everybody, and all of the fish and the aquatic life which really were dependent on free-flowing rivers,” Pouliot said.

But advocates for repairing and preserving it say that the pond above the dam provides aesthetic and recreational resources for the families who ice skate and paddle there.

Andrea Bodo, a Durham resident, advocated for the dam to be preserved as a matter of history. Mill Pond Dam, which is listed on the New Hampshire Registry of Historic Places, is one of the only Ambursen-style dams in the state, Bodo said.

“I think it’s extremely important for the next generation to see what these dams looked like,” Bodo said.

Other community members cited the environmental impacts of the dam, the danger of flooding, and the expense of maintaining the damaged infrastructure as reasons to remove it instead.

The dam has contributed to the decline in the health of the Oyster River, one of seven that flows into the Great Bay Estuary, said Melissa Paly, the Great Bay-Pisqatequa Waterkeeper at the Conservation Law Foundation. Most segments of the estuary do not meet state water quality designations. Removing dams is one way to restore the health of the estuary, Paly wrote in a letter to the Town Council.

“We know from community after community that has made the difficult decision to remove dams that it will improve water quality and it will restore habitat,” she said in an interview with NHPR.

In 2015, the town of Exeter faced a similar challenge. After receiving a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the town removed a dam on the Exeter River. The removal opened up 21 miles of river to migrating fish, restoring habitat and improving water quality, according to NOAA.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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