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The Eel River Headwaters Restoration Project

by Penny Lewis

Across the country, collaborative restoration efforts are underway to restore wetlands, meadows, and other critical habitat. One such project is the Eel River Headwaters Restoration Project in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The combined efforts and funding of the Town of Plymouth; Division of Ecological Restoration – Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; US Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Service; the Nature
Conservancy; American Rivers; and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has demonstrated the power of collaboration on a recent and successful restoration project.

The restoration of the headwaters of Eel River is one of the most ambitious coastal restoration projects completed to date in New England, encompassing a total of 60 acres. It is the largest Atlantic white cedar swamp restoration in Massachusetts and includes a variety of restoration techniques in a single project area including:
· Stream channel and floodplain re-construction
· Fill removal
· Extensive wetland plantings
· Rare-species habitat creation/enhancement
· Dam removals
· Culvert replacements

The project exemplifies holistic restoration of an entire coastal headwaters area, including both wetland and riverine elements. It was a product of innovative design, years of partner coordination and collaboration, multiple funding sources, and extensive input and technical assistance from the entire team. The project received a $1 million grant in 2008 from the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant, which provided the majority of funding for construction. The project took approximately five years to complete.

Site Prior to Restoration

The Eel River Headwaters area was once a wetland noted on maps as early as 1830. The river once flowed uninterrupted from the headwaters spring to the ocean, and supported a diverse array of fish, wildlife, and wetland communities with strong coastal connectivity.

Decades of agricultural activities turned the area into cranberry bogs and resulted in the removal of trees, modification of the stream channel, and construction of upland berms and water control structures.

The downstream dam was a barrier to fish migration and the impoundment affected habitat, water quality and natural riverine processes.

Restoration Project Goals

· Improve fish passage and promote a healthy coldwater fishery
providing suitable habitat for temperature-sensitive species, such as brook trout
· Improve water quality
· Establish rare wetland communities
· Provide the public with recreational and educational opportunities
· Increase biological diversity in the headwaters area to improve ecological resilience
· Connect to other conservation land, providing migration corridors for a variety of species
· Provide conservationists with valuable information to guide other wetland restoration efforts

Project Overview

The restoration included restoring two miles of stream channel which was constructed using over 1,000 pieces of large wood for in-stream habitat features; the removal of multiple barriers to restore connectivity; the filling of miles of agricultural drainage ditches; and the creation of a new floodplain.

The project involved restoration of 40 acres of wetlands involving extensive wetland plantings (including the planting of 17,000+ Atlantic white cedar trees) and re-establishment of rare wetland communities.

The project has resulted in a radical transformation of a once ecologically-barren, former cranberry bog complex into high-value, high-quality river and wetland habitat, permanently preserved for the use and enjoyment of the public.

Even before the restoration work was complete, use of the newly created habitat has been documented. American eels have been observed passing the site of the removed dam to access the restored channel upstream, connecting the Headwaters with the Atlantic Ocean.

For more information:

Town of Plymouth
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
MA Dept. of Fish & Game – Division of Ecological Restoration
The Nature Conservancy
American Rivers

About the Author

Penny Lewis is Executive Director of Ecological Landscape Alliance