Opening the river

Big doings in Pawtuxet Village. They’re taking down the dam above the falls, where thePawtuxetRiverflows into the harbor, and from there toNarragansett Bay. The first dam was wooden, built in the 1700s. The current, concrete dam has been in place since the 1920s. Restoring the river to its pre-Colonial condition will allow herring and other fish to swim upriver and spawn. Better sex for smallish fish will mean better eating for bigger fish and birds.

I’ve been hearing that same story again and again this week – parents explaining it to their children, grown children explaining it to their elderly parents, neighbor explaining it to neighbor, as we all stand on the bridge watching the work going on below. Besides making a good story and providing a nice science lesson, the dam-removal project turns out to be a great spectator sport.

Three men wearing hard hats, safety vests, surfer bathing suits, and water shoes stroll across the dam like high-wire walkers, wade through the water, and sometimes swim as they move orange booms around, attach enormous chains to two-ton sandbags, or jimmy blue steal plates into position. A backhoe rolls like a tank through the water, up rocks and over rubble, tugs and lifts and lowers equipment into place, or scoops debris from the river bottom. When the gigantic pneumatic drill is attached to the arm, it drills into the concrete, breaking it up like a dentist’s drill shattering a rotten molar.

And all the while the river flows around the construction site, glassy-smooth above the dam, and white-water rippling below it. It makes a lovely sound. I’ve stood on this same bridge lots of times before. But until now I never realized how much the contours of the river – the amount of rock exposed, the speed of the rapids – changes with the tide.

The spectators chat, point, take pictures, line up to buy cones at the ice cream shop conveniently located beside the bridge. The atmosphere is festive, friendly, interested. Just about everyone seems to approve of the project. If it’s good for the fish, it’s fine with them.

Who knew you could generate so much excitement just by letting the river flow?

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