A large undertaking to reverse human impacts on the lower Coonamessett River wrapped up last week after several years of planning, funding and construction. The once-dammed river now flows on its natural course and allows herring and other migratory species to run, as it did centuries ago. Fifty-six acres of surrounding cranberry bogs have been reverted back to wetlands, project coordinator Betsy Gladfelter said.
“I am thrilled to see this project complete. It’s been a huge team and town-wide effort,” she said.
The Coonamessett River runs for about three miles from Coonamessett Pond to Great Pond. About 2.2 miles of the system have been reopened. The completed project will bring back river herring and trout and provide a barrier for storm surges, Ms. Gladfelter said.
The 3.5-mile Coonamessett Greenway Heritage Trail built around the river is complete. Interpretive signs tell the river’s ecological, historical and cultural story. Still left to finish is a one-mile, disabled-accessible trail, and a parking lot that is scheduled to be completed in the next month.
The river had been a power source for industry in Falmouth since the 1700s, beginning with the construction of grist mills. Later, wool mills took advantage of the river’s power, and in the late 1800s the cranberry industry moved in.
Species that were heavily impacted by all this industrial activity include alewife and blueback herring, brook trout and the American eel, Ms. Gladfelter said. She estimates that about 70,000 herring are running now, but the official count by the Coonamessett River Trust is canceled due to COVID-19.
Work on the site began in earnest in 2017 and included removing two dams, replacing deteriorated culverts at John Parker Road with a fish-friendly crossing, building bridges, redirecting the river to become more sinuous, and removing layers of sandy topsoil on the former bogs.
The site admittedly looks unattractive right now, Ms. Gladfelter said, but by June things will begin to green up when the grasses and flowering herbaceous plants sprout from seeds buried 300 years ago. The hydro seeding and planting of small trees and bushes is complete. By August, she predicts, it will look like a wetland meadow.
Talk of restoring the river had gone on since the mid-1990s, Ms. Gladfelter said. The project has been pushed along with the involvement of other organizations in recent years, with construction starting in October 2017. The Coonamessett River Trust, the 300 Committee Land Trust, the Town of Falmouth, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the state Division of Ecological Restoration have worked on the project.
The final cost is $6 million, with $4 million coming from state and federal agencies for the river and wetland restoration. Just over $600,000 came from Community Preservation Act funds and $300,000 from The 300 Committee for the gateway project. There was an additional $1 million in volunteer and in-kind Town of Falmouth support.