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Stonington - During the March 2010 flood, residents of the Birdland neighborhood off Route 1 feared that a century-old dam just upstream on Anguilla Brook was going to rupture, sending raging floodwaters downstream into their homes.
By the end of this week, though, that fear will be gone as crews dismantle the stone and earthen Rutan Dam at the end of Lane Way.
Meanwhile, within two weeks another dam project a half-mile downstream at the headwaters of Wequetequock Cove will create a fish ladder that will allow eels and other fish to make their way up past the area of the Rutan Dam, which will become the site of a restored brook.
The two projects will reopen the entire 13-mile stretch of the cold-water brook and are expected to restore its historical populations of alewife, American eel (whose scientific name is Anguilla rostrata), brook trout and other species.
"This stream was named after eels, but it's been difficult for eels to get up here. By pulling the plug we're restoring the namesake of this stream," said Steve Gephard, a supervising biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Monday as he watched an excavator remove large rocks from the wall of the 185-foot-long dam and 40-foot spillway.
"It would be sad to go to Maine and not see any lobsters, so let's make sure there are eels in Anguilla Brook," he added.
First Selectman Ed Haberek said Monday that the town and Birdland residents welcomed the project, as they have been worried about the weakened state of the dam and the possibility it could fail in a big storm.
"We have a number of orphan dams in town, so this will really help out," he said.
The project is being undertaken by the Nature Conservancy with $147,000 in funding from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Long Island Sound Future's Fund. The conservancy has also worked on the project with the DEEP, the Avalonia Land Conservancy and residents Bill and Linda Rutan, who gave permission for the work to take place on their property. The planning, permitting and design for the work began shortly after the March 2010 flood.
Sally Harold, the director of migratory fish projects for the Nature Conservancy, said there are so many old, unused colonial-era dams in New England that habitats for migratory fish have been cut off , which is one reason why some species are struggling.
"This is pretty exciting. With the number of dams in Connecticut, you rarely get to do this," she said.
Harold said the fact that the Rutan family and the town were in favor of the project and the Nature Conservancy had the assistance of the DEEP and the Avalonia Land Conservancy made the work that much smoother to complete.
Gephard has been using hot dogs as bait to trap the White River crayfish that had been living in the now-drained pond created by the dam. In addition he also relocated mussels that lived in the pond. Except for a lone bluegill on Monday, he said, fish have moved away on their own.
Once the dam and silt are removed to create the path for the brook, Gephard said, the trout and eels will quickly move past the dam and swim miles upstream.
He said the number of eels will especially increase next June when juvenile eels are born. He said it will take about a decade for several generations of alewives to repopulate the brook as they only move to a new location once the area they are in gets too crowded. Eventually, he said, the stream will have 10,000 or more alewives.
He and Harold said the more than one-acre pond, which is now drying out, will turn into a meadow within months.
Gephard said the project offers the DEEP, which will monitor the changes, a chance to learn how their restoration methods are working so they can be applied to future dam removals.
"There's been a lot of studies done, but this is a living laboratory. It's not hypothetical anymore," he said.