Milltown Dam project progressing, conservation council excited

(St. Croix International Waterway Commission photo) The state of the Salmon Falls and Milltown Dam site as pictured on Oct. 19. NB Power started dismantling the dam close to five months ago and the project is progressing as planned.

ST. STEPHEN – Almost five months into the dismantling of the Milltown Dam, NB Power said the project is progressing, while the Conservation Council of New Brunswick is enthusiastic about its impact on fish stocks.

NB Power communications specialist Dominique Couture wrote via email that contractor Pennecon Limited has not encountered any roadblocks during the project.

“Our contractor is making good progress, and the project is on schedule,” Couture wrote.

While she was unable to confirm exactly how many man-hours will go into the project until decommissioning is complete, Couture wrote that the project is being done in phases on the Canadian and American sides of the border.

“The Canadian side demolition of the powerhouses is almost complete,” she wrote. “The main dam section on the U.S. side remains, and removal will begin once the Canadian side cofferdam is removed.”

Couture said some dam material will stay at the site; others will be disposed elsewhere.

“The demolition materials, where possible, will be repurposed and used at the site as the project proceeds,” she wrote. “The demolition materials which cannot be repurposed are being removed from the area by truck and disposed of at approved disposal sites.”

Meanwhile, the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, which has been advocating for the dam’s removal, said it will provide an ecological boost to the St. Croix River.

Matt Abbott, marine program director and Fundy Bay Keeper with the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, said he has been working on the restoration of the St. Croix (Skutik) River since 2009.

“It’s been a priority for us for a long time and so I’m really excited. I think the restoration of Salmon Falls and removal of the Milltown Dam is an exciting step in the journey of the river,” he said. “It’s such an integral part of a really widespread river and fish restoration effort.”

Abbott said the modern fishway built past Milltown in the 1970s can be credited with keeping the fish run alive.

“The fishway that was built at the Milltown Dam was a really important first step and now we’re taking that next step,” he said. “I really foresee the Salmon Falls site being a source of celebration and connection to the river.”

Abbott said it is vital that every fish travelling the St. Croix River can pass through Salmon Falls, the site of the Milltown Dam, because once they get to Grand Falls, there are multiple channels they can use.

“It’s just really exciting, it opens a whole bunch of doors to restoration,” he said. “It lets us dream bigger now that Salmon Falls is being restored.”

Although not the only barrier, Abbott said the Milltown Dam was the first barrier fish faced in the river.

“This is a project that’s really exciting for me and gives me a lot of hope; it’s good to see things getting better,” he said. “A river can always pass fish better than any human infrastructure can. I think we owe great credit to the fishway that was built past Milltown.”

While they are concerned with a host of species like Atlantic salmon, American shad, rainbow smelt, American eels, short nose sturgeon, stripped bass, sea lamprey and sea-run trout, Abbott said river herring and gaspereau (also called blueback herring and alewife) are the most important.

“They’re a fish that everything eats so we’re starting with that, and it will become easier to help everything else in the river once we have this food fish up in high numbers,” he said. “We talk about this as a dam removal and river restoration, but these fish are whale food, they’re porpoise food, and perhaps most importantly, they’re groundfish food, like cod and pollock. Groundfish will chase these fish to eat them and that brings the groundfish populations into coastal waters where we’ve traditionally fished them. It’s a real boost to the whole ecosystem, to the Bay of Fundy, Gulf of Maine, and of course, the river itself.”

The modern high-water mark of fish in the river was 2.5 million in 1987 and Abbott estimates that historically the river has been able to support more than 10 million fish.

“It’s almost certain that before we started building dams and widespread logging, we would have seen well, well above 10 million fish,” he noted.

As a result of the dam decommissioning, Abbott said fish are returning to the river.

“We’re seeing the fish coming back,” he noted. “Twenty years ago, there were 900 fish, 10 years ago, there were about 40,000, this year, there’s 800,000, we’re getting close to 1 million now.”

Abbott said there are fish passage improvements at the other dams along the St. Croix River and staff from the Peskotomuhkati First Nation and others have visited every culvert and bridge to make sure fish can pass through.

Although a Peskotomuhkati First Nation project, Abbott said the fish are returning because people are working together.

“I’ve been very fortunate to work with them throughout the past 13 or 14 years or so,” he said. “We’ve co-developed a restoration plan, which looks at the whole watershed, both sides of the border and there’s widespread collaboration between Indigenous government and Indigenous organizations, Passamaquoddy organizations, on both sides of the river, both sides of the Canada-U.S. border too, obviously. We also have NGOs from both sides of the border working on this and we have collaboration from the Canadian, U.S. and Maine governments as well.”

Abbott hopes the Government of New Brunswick will become “a more active partner.”

“The door is open to them,” he said. “We’re achieving a great deal. It’s a positive project with a really rich, positive process where there’s lots of room for people to help.”

Students at Milltown Elementary School were able to see the start of the dam removal last school year, and, in the spring, Abbott said they will be able to see fish going up Salmon Falls for the first time in 150 years.

“I’m just really excited for what this means for the community,” he stated. “I think it’s going to be a beautiful site where we can really see the benefit of restoration and we can really see what the river means to our community.”

At the start of the project, Abbott said his goals surrounded ecosystem integrity, rebuilding the food chain, and making sure there was food for species under stress from climate change but those have evolved.

“For me, it’s a social project, it’s about food for Indigenous communities and it’s about food for my own community,” he said. “It’s about my own daughter’s connection to the river and my own daughter’s sense of place. It is about taking steps to addressing historic wrongs. This river and the fish, and other creatures that were in it, have been at the heart of people’s lives here for tens of thousands of years.”

Jake Boudrot

A graduate of St. Francis Xavier University and a resident of Arichat, Jake Boudrot is an award-winning journalist with decades of experience as a freelancer, reporter and editor representing media outlets across the Maritimes.