Removing the Elm Street Dam: Everything You Want to Know

Part 1: Ecological Benefits | Part 2: Economic Benefits | Part 3: Everything Else

Friends and neighbors, thank you for your support of the 2016 Kingston Town Meeting article that will provide town funds to match federal and state support to remove the dam just below Elm Street on Jones River:

ARTICLE 36 – Establishment of Jones River Restoration Fund

To see if the Town will vote to appropriate or transfer a sum of funds, not to exceed $125,000.00, for the purpose of contributing to the funding of the removal of the so-called Elm Street Dam, along with all costs incidental thereto, said appropriation or transfer being contingent upon receipt of the balance of necessary funds, via State or Federal grant or otherwise, to complete said project, and to authorize the Board of Selectmen and Town Administrator to take any and all actions necessary to facilitate said project, or take any other action in relation thereto.

Description: This article will contribute to the funding of the removal of the Elm Street Dam, contingent upon receiving the balance of necessary funds, via State or Federal grant or otherwise, to complete said project.

In this three-part series, we will provide information about the benefits of removing the Elm Street Dam. We also encourage your questions and comments.

Part 1: Ecological Benefits

Reconnecting the River

The Jones River was formed over 10,000 years ago with the retreating ice age and for more than 99.8% of its history, it was a free-flowing, unobstructed river. Fish and other animals passed freely between the tidal estuary and the steady freshwater flow from the glacial headwaters. Native Americans caught fish as they moved up and downstream on their predictable seasonal migrations. It wasn’t until the 1600’s that the river became severed by dams, and not until 1920 when concrete completely disconnected the river at Elm Street. The fish ladder lets a portion of fish pass, but it still blocks rainbow smelt, sea-run trout, American shad, American eels, turtles, and a long list of other species that once used the whole river. Removing the dam is the ONLY way to restore the natural connectivity of the river.

Shad are completely blocked by the Elm Street Dam. Removing the dam is the ONLY way to turn the Jones River into a productive shad run.

Shad are completely blocked by the Elm Street Dam. Removing the dam is the ONLY way to turn the Jones River into a productive shad run.

Improving Water Quality

As the dam blocks the natural flow of water, it creates an impoundment (or “pond”) upstream. The impoundment traps sediment, nutrients, and warm water, which encourage an ever-increasing amount of vegetation. If you’ve looked at the impoundment in the summer you’ve seen the weed-choked shallows and the bright green scum covering the surface. All of this excess growth not only looks gross, but it also depletes the water of oxygen, making it uninhabitable for native fish through much of the year.

These water quality problems are bad enough that this part the Jones River has been put on the state and federal list of impaired waters (the Clean Water Act’s 303(d) list) – it is the Town’s responsibility under state and federal law to address these problems. There are lots of fancy and expensive technologies (including dredging) that the Town could implement to try to improve conditions, but removing the dam would solve the problems much more effectively and permanently.

The impoundment at Elm Street Dam.

The impoundment at Elm Street Dam.

Prevent Flooding

Some dams were built to control river flow and flooding, but the Elm Street Dam is NOT one of those dams. In fact, most New England dams were not designed for flood control, but rather to turn mill wheels or generate power. Their design is intended to raise the water to high levels, then capture the energy of the falling water. As a result, these dams CREATE flooding problems rather than prevent them. Upstream, the Elm Street Dam raises the water level about ten feet and creates the impoundment. Generally, property owners upstream of dams have notoriously wet basements and flooded lawns. Those basements and lawns dry out quickly when dams are removed.

Downstream of Elm Street Dam, it’s all about RISK of flooding. Day to day, like most dams, the Elm Street Dam doesn’t impact the rate of flow downstream, but if the dam fails, all of the impounded water goes downstream at once, which could be catastrophic. The 2005 evacuation of downtown Taunton was the result of a failing dam just upstream. After some serious panic, the Whittenton Dam was first repaired, then permanently removed in 2012 to protect the city.

Elm Street Dam creates a third type of flooding that is somewhat unique. The dam is located in the tidal part of Jones River. As a result, it doesn’t just impact the water flowing downstream, it also impacts the tidal water moving upstream on the tide. This is especially impactful during big high tides and storm events. As these big tides reach the dam, the water is prevented from moving upstream. Instead the water fills up the river and has to spread out over the banks. Drive along Brook Street, or visit the water department during a Nor’easter or astronomical high tide, and you’ll see all that tidal water inundates the marshes and overtops rock embankments onto lawns. Combined with heavy rainfall, this condition becomes hazardous and is a big reason for concern about the water department dam.

Rainbow smelt are completely blocked by the Elm Street Dam. Their spawning habitat has been reduced to the area right at the base of the dam. Removing the dam is the ONLY way to extend their spawning habitat in the Jones River.

Rainbow smelt are completely blocked by the Elm Street Dam. Their spawning habitat has been reduced to the area right at the base of the dam. Removing the dam is the ONLY way to extend their spawning habitat in the Jones River.

The Bigger Picture

The fish and water quality of the Jones River are part of a significant ecosystem. River herring and rainbow smelt spend 5-6 months in the river when they’re first born, plus another few weeks each year when they return to spawn. The rest of their lives are spent in the estuaries and open ocean along the east coast. Out there, these fish are the foundation of the food chain and are gobbled up by Atlantic cod, striped bass, tuna, birds, and just about every other ocean hunter. All of these species rely on healthy herring and smelt populations that come out of coastal rivers like the Jones. In turn, we humans rely on these bigger fish for our food and commercial and recreational economies.

One of the most important examples of this co-dependence is seen in the cod fishery. Cod made Massachusetts, having been a foundation of our economy for centuries. The fairly recent crash of the cod fishery has sent widespread economic ripples through the Commonwealth. One of the most important factors in the decline in cod is the decline in river herring populations. Removing dams, reconnecting rivers, and restoring fish spawning habitats does more than just address a local problem, it repairs the regional ecology and economy that we all depend on. When we understand that the Jones is the largest river draining to Cape Cod Bay, and within seven and a half miles could be connected to the historic ancestral glacial spawning grounds, we are able to understand the dramatic and positive outcome removing the Elm Street Dam will bring.

These issues are really just the tip of the ecological iceberg when it comes to dam removal. The natural functions of a tidal river have so many hidden and interconnected benefits that it is difficult to comprehend. The river is forgiving and it is resilient. For a millennia we humans have used it for its fish and other natural resources. For centuries we used it for the flowing power it provided to build our industries. Now that we have other sources of power, it is time that we gave the river back it’s flow and reestablish its connections.

Read Ted Ames’ discussion about Cod population’s dependance on River Herring:
Forage Fish and Gulf of Maine Cod (Gulf of Maine Research Institute) →

Don’t forget to voice your support by attending Kingston Town Meeting on Saturday, June 11th (and succeeding sessions on the following Tuesday and Wednesday, if the meeting goes that long). In the meantime please share your thoughts or questions with us! Call the Landing at (781) 585-2322, or email

Up next — Part 2: Economic Benefits →

1 Comment

  1. Faith Fleming

    To whom it may concern,
    I’m relatively new to Kingson and recently bought a house down the street from the Jones River Landing building (I’m at 7 Maple St.) I am very interested in our waterways and the environment and was wondering exactly what your group does, meetings membership fee, etc. TIA for any info you can give me.

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