Update on the Royal River Restoration Study
By Karin Orenstein, Town Councilor
In January 2021, the Town approved a contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) for a “feasibility study.” The subject of the study is whether the Royal River can be safely restored to a healthy, natural ecosystem. The USACE determined that access could potentially be restored to about 135 miles of reproductive and nursery habitat for multiple fish species including herring, alewives, shad and trout. If fish return to the river in large numbers, so will the mammals and birds that prey on fish. Water quality may also improve if the river is free-flowing and no longer held back in impoundments behind the dams. The Elm Street dam holds the river back in a pondlike state that goes on for six miles!
You’ll be forgiven if you’ve been wondering, “What ever happened with that study?” For a long time, the answer was “not much.” But that changed this past spring with the appointment of a new USACE project manager, Janet Cote. We now have an enthusiastic USACE project team, a project management plan and forward momentum.
The USACE team came to see the river for themselves on September 6th. Its members include a range of engineers and scientists who are each looking at the project through the lens of their own area of expertise. They viewed the river and its surroundings from the Town Landing to Baston Park in North Yarmouth. Their tour, led by local guide (and Town Manager) Nat Tupper, covered the Elm and Bridge Street dams and fishways, as well as the various crossings and falls.
As for the feasibility study, there are two key components. First, the USACE is finalizing a model of how water moves through the river. They’ll use the model to simulate what happens when you remove or alter one or both dams. Last March, the USACE presented a draft of this model to the community. Second, the USACE is taking samples of river sediment from key locations to determine if they contain any pollutants. Sediment sampling is planned for early October. The project team is hoping to have those samples analyzed in time to hold a virtual public meeting before the end of November.
Over the winter, the USACE will evaluate several ecosystem restoration options, including taking no action. The restoration options will include the removal of both the Bridge and Elm Street dams and one or two options that don’t involve full dam removal (for example, removing one dam and improving the fish passage at the other). By the spring, we hope to see their draft report on the costs and benefits of each option, including how much each will improve the river ecosystem and how much it will cost. In the report, the USACE will also make a recommendation as to the best alternative for our town. Rest assured, the USACE will make its findings and recommendation public, and everyone will have an opportunity to participate in a public comment period.
Additional information regarding the Army Corps of Engineers Federal Interest Determination study will continue to be posted on the Town of Yarmouth's website as it becomes available.