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To Free a River

Recently, I paddled a 4 mile stretch of the 45 mile Ipswich River (above the Ipswich Mills Dam). Before the time of the colonists, the Ipswich was a tidal river, allowing for native fish to migrate upstream to spawn, return to the ocean to grow and return once again to spawn. This cycle ended when the first dam was built in 1637 and the current dam in 1908. On May 21 the citizens of the town of Ipswich voted on whether to remove the dam. 'No' voters wanted to keep the status quo. 'Yes' voters hoped to remove the dam, their tag line 'free the river'.

Upper pond by Ipswich Mills Dam

This morning the results are in ... 58% voted 'Yes' to remove the dam and free the river. The voting while non binding is intended to give direction to elected officials to begin the process of dam removal. As a sign of how contentious this debate has been within a small town, this is the second vote requested by the Select Board (town council). The prior vote for 'Yes' was 68%. However, even with a highly organized 'No Vote', the citizens have once again voted by a significant margin to remove the dam. It's time for the Select Board to heed the will of the people and act.

Imagine. After nearly 400 years this tidal river will be allowed to return to its natural state. Scientists say that the pluses will be many: Migratory fish will return, utelizing upstream habitat, often within the first year; water quality will improve fluctuating with the tide (as compared to a dammed up pond, which often becomes stagnant with low oxygen levels) and the flood plain expanded, mitigating risk to flooding.

Imagine. Before European colonists named this river the Ipswich (after a town in England), it was called the Agawam by the Pawtucket people, an indigenous Algonquin-speaking tribe. The Pawtucket related to the Agawam through travel, agriculture and fishing - and they did so while maintaining the river's ecological balance. For the Pawtucket the Agawam was and is a sacred place.

Upstream, one day soon, ocean going fish will return to spawn, allowing an ancient cycle to continue.

Relatively soon, it is hoped the dam will be removed, the water will again ebb and flow with the tide and native fish will return. Just as it has for thousands of years, since the basement of time. Imagine.

During a time when our global environment is at tipping point due to human greed, one little town has made a courageous and visionary decision, to retore their river to health. How rare it is to see what once was, return.

Oftentimes we may feel overwhelmed by the need that surrounds us. Yet, advocates for the Agawam/Ipswich River show us what can happen, when ordinary people, like us, come together for the common good. Truly, we are the ones we've been waiting for. Hope rests with us!

Wendell Berry an environmental prophet and poet puts it simply: 'Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.' Can I have an 'amen'?

Let the healing begin. Surely, this is a sacred trust, to advocate for the rights of our non-human neighbors too (water, fish, plants, insects, birds, mammals, reptiles). To all we say, welcome home.

With you on the journey ~ Kent Harrop

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David Mahood
David Mahood

The process of dam removals around the country has yielded positive results. Native fish, in most cases, have returned to bring life back to these waterways. Bargaining other species for the benefit of just one is not sustainable. Consuming natural resources and not paying for it is the basis of a flawed economic system, which has put us in this mess to begin with. A natural economy places value on the usage of these resources, which is the only way we will save them for the future. Keep on paddlin'.

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