The Damn Dam

     In the year 2000, the Mill Pond dam was classified as a “significant hazard structure” in a state inspection. For years, the Durham town council debated whether to remove or repair the dam. It wasn’t until Monday, September 13th, 2021, that the decision was finally made. 

     21 years ago, when Durham was given this warning, the town was essentially told: “do something about it.” Scot Calitri, one of the founding members of the Oyster River Conservation Alliance (ORCA), said that Durham hired VHB, a consultancy that specializes in situations like this. They analyzed the problem and gave the town possible solutions and outcomes for what they could do with the dam. From the information provided by VHB, the town chose two alternatives to be further studied. The town council and citizens of Durham ultimately came to the conclusion that the Mill Pond dam either had to be removed, or repaired.  

     Pele Harrison lives on the Oyster River, less than a mile up from the dam. She’s lived there her whole life and never thought she would see it go. Harrison was in support of keeping the dam as she believes that the dam is a staple in Durham’s town history, as well as a landmark that will be lost.  Harrison said, “I was dismayed to learn that so many people want to remove the dam. I don’t understand how they could want to destroy one of the most iconic, historic, and beautiful features of Durham and the environment it creates.”

     Mill Pond has held a big role in the Durham community as a sort of common area for people who live nearby. In many Durham town council meetings, citizens spoke up about how the Mill Pond is an important place for the community, and they are worried we will lose that if the dam is removed. Some of the comments emphasized the activities that waterfront homeowners partake in. In the past, the pond was used for ice skating, playing pond hockey in the winter, and kayaking in the summer. There are some picnic tables, walking trails, and a little footbridge that you can walk over. 

     One of the biggest concerns for repairing the dam is the cost, which includes dredging of Mill Pond. Dredging is the action of cleaning out the bed of (a harbor, river, or other area of water) by scooping out mud, weeds, and rubbish with a dredge. Along with the dredging would come sediment removal to clear out the water and whatever dredging left behind, and of course, increasing the cost of the removal. VHB estimated about 5 million dollars for the entire process, none of which is a permanent solution. However, to many citizens who own property on the river, the 5 million spent to repair is much better than the loss of their waterfront property value. 

     Many of the people who supported removing the dam were most concerned about the ecological damage the dam has caused. Melissa Pley, Great-Bay Piscataqua Waterkeeper, at the Conservation Law Foundation, sent an email to the Durham town council in March 2021. The email outlined the science behind the dam removal argument.  Pley included the poor health of the estuary, low oxygen levels that can’t be solved by dredging, and how the history of the Mill Pond estuary starts long before the dam, with the indigenous peoples that harvested the migratory fish.

     In a YouTubevideo called “Restoring Our Water and Food Ways of N’dakinna (Our Homelands)” Paul and Denise Pouliot, members of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People, talk about the indigenous culture of the area and their views on the Mill Pond Dam. Paul Pouliot said, “We like to honor not only the land but the waterways, the air, the flora, the fauna and all the things living in N’dakinna. They sustained us through thousands of years. 12,000 years in this particular place called N’dakinna.” The Pouliots have been engaging people in the Durham community doing environmental and social justice projects since 2008. The Pouliots are in strong support of removing the dam and restoring the land to its natural state. In the video, Paul Pouliot said, “this town should really wake up and realize [we’d be] spending more money to preserve this or reconstruct this colonial suppression…I’d rather see water flowing here, and all the migratory birds come back here once these are wetlands again. Once this is purged of all the pollutants you’re going to see a robust ecosystem come back.” Paul Puiot ended the video with a powerful statement preaching the importance of listening to science and remembering that Durham’s history does not start at the dam. 

     Micheal Dionne, a Marine Biologist with New Hampshire Fish and Game said, ​ “If the dam is removed, the Mill Pond will disappear and the system will become riverine habitat. Bathymetry (the measurement of the depth of water in oceans, seas, or lakes) performed by VHB shows that at least several hundred feet of the river will become tidal.  So at least some of the former Mill Pond will become estuarine much like what exists below the dam currently.”

     The Mill Pond dam has been in Durham for decades so naturally, the ecosystem grew on either side of the dam. On one side the dam is a tidal marsh and the other is the pond. At this point, the pond is more algae than anything, but the Oyster River and Mill Pond support birds, fish, otters, frogs, turtles, plants, and many other animals. One of Harrison’s concerns is that we will lose more habitat than we will gain during the restoration of the dam. She believes that because the town council decided to remove the dam, citizens will lose trust in the town council and feel betrayed in some ways.  She added, “once down, they can never repair the damage done and the space that once was the Mill Pond will be a depressing reminder of their decision.”

    To marine biologists, scientists, and many Durham residents, removing the dam seems like the logical choice. It would return the river to its original state and allow fish that used to migrate here to come back. After all the studies done by VHB, local scientists, and companies, a major part of the decision came down to the cost. Removing the Mill Pond Dam was estimated at around $1.3 million in the VHB report, almost two times less than repairing the dam.  

     Jon Bromley, a science teacher at Oyster River and Durham citizen, is in full support of removing the dam. He said, “from an environmental standpoint, from an economic standpoint, an ecological standpoint, and a historical standpoint, it all points to the ‘dam’s life is over.’ It’s time for it to come down.” Bromley continued saying that to try and repair it is simply postponing the inevitable, that the dam will come down. Bromley said that while the dam does hold a historical connection to Durham, there are ways to preserve the history with things like signage to commemorate it, but the argument on the history is shortsighted. “There’s a whole lot beyond our little colonial history, and in this day and age, it’s important to be increasingly mindful of [that].”

     The recent pushback from the town has begun to increase only days after the decision was made. Durham town citizens have not held back from expressing their opinions to the leaders of the community. Many have become skeptical of the science done by the consultancy VHB. In town meetings, citizens have said that VHB is reporting biased reports that encourage the removal of dams.  Many townspeople have set up protests and petitions to make the decision move to a town vote rather than a council decision after 21 years of debating. The people of Durham are now being faced with the decision to either destroy a historic landmark to restore the natural flow of the Oyster River estuary or save the dam but spend more money for an impermanent solution for Mill Pond.

Photo by Hannah Muessig