A return-to-nature initiative that began years ago finally came to its crumbling conclusion Monday afternoon when the Dana Dam in Wilton came down.

Officials from Save the Sound hosted a press gathering and get-together at the site in Merwin Meadows, where preparation work for removing the Norwalk River dam began early this year. Though work will continue into the fall on various facets of the overall $4-million project — finishing the crafting of the riverbanks and channel construction, landscaping and ultimate cleanup — those involved celebrated the milestone of actually shattering the concrete dam itself this week.

“We’re excited about what’s next,” said Alex Krofta, Save the Sound’s ecological restoration projects manager, who oversaw the work. The current project began in the planning stages more than five years ago but has an even longer history dating back around 30 years when the idea of removing the 80-year-old dam was first bandied about.

“This is such a public site,” Krofta said. “We really want to use this as an opportunity to show folks what you can do … By removing a dam you’re creating a river and you’re restoring a landscape.”

Damming of rivers brings a wide range of adverse impacts to ecosystems, starting with inhibiting certain saltwater fish that need to travel up freshwater rivers to lay eggs. Consequently, some of these animals have markedly declined in number, which in turn has affected the creatures that use them as a food source.

Damming also changes the natural distribution of flowing river sediment, which plays its own role in abetting the development of what Krofta called “microhabitats” — important areas of life that might not otherwise flourish when river flow is blocked.

“Sediment is supposed to naturally flow through the system and create all these microhabitats,” he said.

With many stakeholders involved in the location of the dam, including the town, state and Metro-North, permission and permits were slow to obtain. Finding funding for the work also took considerable time, with private donations, grants and both state and federal monies used to make it happen.

Wilton’s U.S. Congressman Jim Himes was on hand for the ceremony, having helped the project obtain around $475,000 from federal agencies.

“This is going to be not only a more beautiful (place) but a more sustainable environment,” Himes said, noting that he lives along the Mianus River in Greenwich and understands the importance of its healthy flow.

“When you remove a dam, you completely boost the ecosystem in the area,” he said.

Among the people working on the project was Mike Chelminski, a principal with Stantec Consulting Services, Inc., who grew up fishing on the Norwalk River at the Dana Dam, down the road from where his father, Paul Chelminski, grew up on Ridgefield Rd.

“My buddy Alex and I worked our butts off on this for four years,” he said.

“This is meaningful work … I grew up here on this river,” he said, thrilled to have taken part in the project and ceremoniously allowed to operate the jackhammer to land the first blow on the dam itself.

Laura Wildman, vice president of ecological restoration for Save the Sound, said this project was unique because it wasn’t just a bandage solution, but a permanent one.

“It’s a sustainable solution,” she said, unlike infrastructure redesign projects that require long-term maintenance.

“It’s like we’re taking a blockage out of a vein or artery, and then you open it up and the system can restore itself,” she said. “It’s a full restoration technique.”

John Vander Werff, a fish biologist with Save the Sound, shared his excitement with the group in attendance.

“This is a historic day for fish,” he said. “It’s creating access to spawning habitats that haven’t been accessible since the dam was put up.”

He said that river herring and shad in particular would see great benefit, as would a wide selection of river otters, raccoons, egrets and herons that use these fish as food.

Donna Merrill, who serves on the board of the Norwalk River Watershed Association, which originally began championing the removal of the dam decades ago, expressed her joy at this conclusion.

“I feel this is almost a miracle that this is happening,” she said. “This is just an amazing process.

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