Ipswich dam’s future on the line with town vote

IPSWICH, Mass. — It has spanned the Ipswich River for more than a hundred years. And some in town say that’s enough reason to keep the Mill Dam in place.

“How do you have a historical mill building without a dam,” asked Marlene Markos. “History matters.”

But what also matters, proponents of removing the dam said, is the environment.

“We’ve known for a long time that dams are really bad for river ecology,” said Erin Bonney Casey of the Ipswich River Watershed Association (IRWA). “It used to power mills. It doesn’t anymore. But it still sits there and does a lot of ecological damage.”

Tuesday, Ipswich voters had a chance to weigh in. A non-binding referendum is on the ballot that will take the town’s temperature on the issue. A ‘no’ vote would keep the dam. ‘Yes’ would approve its removal — a process that will cost in the vicinity of $1 million, Casey said — but is fully funded through state and federal grants.

Removing the dam will improve the spawning chances for a handful of native fish, which struggle to make it up the dam’s current fish ladder, said Casey.

“The key wildlife blocked are migratory fish,” she said. “Notably herring, but also shad and eels.”

These species prefer to spawn and, in the case of eels, mature in freshwater habitats. And right now, Casey said, they can’t do that. “Our fish ladder doesn’t work very well for the species for which it’s designed.”

Casey said nostalgia may be driving opposition to tearing down the dam.

“The dam’s been here longer than any of us,” she said. “Sometimes change makes people a little nervous.”

But opponents say this change is unnecessary.

“The current ecosystem above the dam is thriving,” said Benjamin Gorniewicz, a lifelong Ipswich resident — who fears the healthy flow of the Ipswich could be reduced to a brook-like trickle.

Casey said there’s no doubt the appearance of the river will change. For one thing, it will narrow.

David Russell, a supporter of removing the dam, doesn’t have any problem with that.

“It’s gonna be beautiful in a little bit different way,” he said. “It will be healthier and hopefully the town can come together. The bitterness is really unfortunate.”

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