On a recent Monday, Jon Honea paddled his “research vessel”—a red and black Perception Pescador kayak—out into the middle of what was once a reservoir on the Shawsheen River in Andover, Massachusetts.
He had already run a line from one bank to the other and set up a laser a number of yards away. The stadia rod (“giant ruler”) he was planting into the reservoir bed along the line would allow him to map its shifting topography.
Honea, an assistant professor of environmental studies in Emerson’s Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, has been studying the Shawsheen for a number of years. He co-teaches a course on the environmental economics of rivers with Nejem Raheem, an environmental economist in the Marketing Communication Department. The course used to focus on how old mill dams affect the ecology, politics, and economy of communities along the Shawsheen.
This summer, Honea is studying what happens when one of those mill dams—the roughly 200-year-old Marland Place Dam—is removed.
“We’ve really screwed up rivers thoroughly,” Honea said of America’s early industrial past, “because we tried to control them.”
Across the lower 48 states, there are maybe a handful of free-flowing sections of rivers, Honea said; in Massachusetts alone, there are about 3,000 dams. More than 95 percent of those once powered the mills that brought industry and prosperity to 19th-century cities and towns, he said, but they haven’t served a purpose in decades.
As the structures have deteriorated and become dangerous, private owners have been faced with the choice of repairing them to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars or removing them with the support of environmental and government groups. It may seem like a no-brainer, but the decision isn’t always cut and dry, Honea said. The dams are part of these communities’ history, and people can become attached.
“This change is hard, but when it happens, the land [around the reservoirs] potentially starts filling in, and you get this nice little forest and new habitat,” he said.
Last winter, two dams on the Shawsheen in Andover were removed thanks to a coalition of local and state authorities and private property owners: Marland Place and the Balmoral, which was unusual in that it was built as an ornamental dam in the 1920s, according to the Town of Andover website.
Dams have significantly altered the ecology of the rivers’ watersheds and beyond. For one thing, sediment that normally would be carried downstream isn’t making its way to the coasts. That is compounding the effects of climate change, i.e., rising sea levels, to contribute to beach erosion. Some cities, like Miami Beach, are importing tons of sand to keep the ocean at bay, Honea said.
Locally, the Shawsheen hasn’t supported native migratory fish for 200 years because they’ve been blocked from their spawning grounds by the dams, Honea said, and it’s not alone among New England rivers.
“That’s why we lost most of our herring, shad, and especially Atlantic salmon. All the species that made the Europeans want to stay in the first place,” he said
But with the removal of the Marland Place Dam, there are signs of fish life once again.
This spring, Honea led a team of about 250 volunteers to count herring that have made their way into the Shawsheen from the Merrimack River system, which has a straight shot to the Atlantic. They estimated that more than 400 fish had naturally strayed into the river.
Honea’s research promises to be interesting not just to ecologists and environmental scientists, but to stakeholders who want to know what the implications of dam removal might be, he said. The whole movement to take down the dams has only really taken off in the last 20 years or so, Honea said, and the plan to take out the Marland Place Dam was maybe a decade in the making. The two demolished in Andover were some of the first to actually go.
“We recognize a lot of the problems with dams, but we really don’t have a good idea of what happens when you take out dams,” Honea said. “In order to justify taking out these dams, we really need to know what we’re doing.”
What happens on the Shawsheen is also interesting to two Emerson College alumni, who are making a documentary about the project.
Filmmaker Brandon Cardwell ’15 said he took more courses with Honea than any other faculty member while at Emerson. It was through one of those courses that he learned about the dam removals in Andover, as well as how conservation agents across the country were watching them closely, he said.
“[We realized] this is something that could have a larger impact than just one river, so we started following it and seeing where it goes,” said Cardwell, who is making The Dammed Shawsheen along with multimedia journalist Xandra Fileccia ’15.
Cardwell said he and Fileccia began filming in earnest in October 2015, and have talked to not just Honea and Raheem, but to local and national ecologists and conservation agents, as well as members of the Andover Historical Society for the film.
“[The doc is] kind of showing that it’s a massive undertaking to take [the dams] all out and still preserve ecology,” Cardwell said. “We wanted to document this and show it around so that people see that it’s not a crazy idea and can have a positive impact on the community.”
Back on the Shawsheen, Honea pointed to a mud flat that, before the Marland Place Dam was removed, was a swampy area, rapidly drying out and being replaced by upland vegetation. As the reservoir recedes, some pond habitat will be lost, he said, but there are plenty of ponds in the region and no other free-flowing rivers. Meanwhile, all the endangered species—the river herring, the Atlantic salmon—could find they have a new habitat after so many years.
He turned 180 degrees and pointed out a section of the river underneath a bridge, which now boasted a respectable rapid that Honea said was a blast to paddle over. As these dams come out, he said he could envision canoe and kayak stores and rental shops sprouting up along New England rivers as demand for recreation on free-flowing segments increases.
But first there are a number of questions to be answered. After messing with the rivers to satisfy industry, it’s important we understand the best way to return them to their natural state, he said.
And Honea is happy to help.
“It’s a great way to spend the summer, out on the water,” he said.