The Tel-Electric Dam, on the West Branch of the Housatonic River, will soon be just a memory. The City of Pittsfield is leading a $3.8-million removal and restoration project, years in the making, with support from national, state, and local conservation partners.
Named for the company that produced mechanical piano players in the adjacent mill building, the structure (also called the Mill Street Dam) has been a community landmark for more than a century. Manufacturing supported by the dam provided jobs and supported generations of families. In recent years, the dam’s use and condition has declined, and it has attracted unsafe and undesirable activity.
Discussions about removing the dam began in 2000, when the Massachusetts Office of Dam Safety found the structure to be in overall poor condition with significant operational or maintenance deficiencies.
Over the last 20 years, partners including the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Massachusetts SubCouncil of the Housatonic River Trustee Council, the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Dam and Seawall Repair or Removal Program, the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Pittsfield Mills Corporation, and the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Restoration and Damage Assessment have come forward to fund removal.
A clean, free-flowing West Branch is a key component of the City’s plan for the Westside Riverway, a greenway connecting Wahconah and Clapp parks that will increase residents’ access to the river. Plans include a walking trail past the former dam site and interpretive signs telling the story of the dam, adjacent mill building, and the river itself.
“After more than a decade of planning and assessment, we’re thrilled to see the project advancing,” said James McGrath, Park, Open Space, and Natural Resource Program Manager for the City of Pittsfield. “When completed, the project will not only help restore the natural flows within the river but also remove an outdated piece of infrastructure and the polluted sediments that have been held behind it for decades. We are thankful to the many project partners who have helped the City throughout this complicated project.”
Removing the dam will reconnect nearly five miles of upstream river habitat with the lower reach of the West Branch -- and, ultimately, the mainstem of the Housatonic River -- allowing fish and other aquatic species to move more freely in the watershed. Dam removal will improve water quality and repair natural river processes in the West Branch.
“Our Department is proud to help dam owners remove unwanted dams and restore free-flowing rivers,” said Ronald Amidon, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game. “Removal of the Tel-Electric Dam improves habitat for fish and wildlife and improves public safety for the community. Projects like this are a key part of the Administration’s approach to climate adaptation.”
The project will improve public safety by eliminating the drowning hazard posed by the derelict dam. Without the barrier, the risk of flooding to people and property during heavy rain events will also decrease. As part of removal, historically polluted sediment will be dredged and disposed of safely at off-site locations.
The contract for the project was awarded to SumCo Eco-Contracting of Peabody, Mass., in August, and the company began removing polluted sediment from above the dam in September. About 4,400 cubic yards, or roughly 400 dump truck loads, will be transported to New York State for safe disposal.
Between now and February 2020, SumCo will demolish and remove the dam and build a natural and stabilized river channel, incorporating protective measures for the two railroad bridges that span the river. The project is scheduled to be complete in June 2020, and the City will begin planning the future river greenway next summer.
In 2014, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), in partnership with the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), awarded a $1.7-million Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant to the project. Following the historic storm in 2012, Congress gave $300 million to DOI for resilience projects that strengthen nature so people, habitats, and wildlife can better withstand and recover from the effects of a changing climate. DOI has funded 160 resilience projects with the funds.
The Massachusetts SubCouncil of the Housatonic River Trustee Council -- responsible for administering the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration settlement reached with General Electric (GE) -- contributed $870,000 to the project. In 1999, GE agreed to pay $15 million to restore natural resources within the Housatonic Watershed injured by its activities. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the State of Connecticut, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are members of the Council. Separately, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection awarded $100,000 from its Natural Resource Damages Trust Fund to the undertaking.
“Removal of the Tel-Electric Dam is a welcome project,” said MassDEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg. “It promises preservation of land and aquatic habitats and brings communities back to their natural resources. MassDEP is happy to support the vision outlined in this important project.”
In the last 20 years, nearly 50 projects in Massachusetts and Connecticut have been completed under the GE/Housatonic settlement – protecting and restoring wildlife and aquatic biological resources and habitat, improving recreational uses of natural resources, and providing environmental education and outreach.
“Removing the Tel-Electric Dam is a win for people and wildlife,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Wendi Weber. “A free-flowing West Branch will improve the environment for fish and other wildlife, as well as support Pittsfield’s vision for a safe and enjoyable riverfront. We are proud to collaborate on this project -- one of many conservation partnerships working to restore stream and river systems across New England.”
The Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Dam and Seawall Repair or Removal Program gave $915,000 to the project.
The Berkshire Environmental Action Team (BEAT) offers Westside neighborhood kids the chance to paddle the West Branch and is excited to expand their Kids in Kayaks program following dam removal. When the project is complete, kayaking and canoeing will be possible from Wahconah Park to Woods Pond in Lenox.
“We at BEAT are looking forward to getting people, especially kids, out on the river to explore their city from a different vantage point,” said Jane Winn, executive director at BEAT. “We want people to see how having this dam out of the way allows fish and other wildlife - as well as people - to move up and down the West Branch of the Housatonic River.”