Plans for Merwin Meadows Dam Removal Look Like “A Great Win” for Wilton

Dana Dam (also known as Strong Pond Dam or the Merwin Dam) is located on a stretch of the Norwalk River in Merwin Meadows. In 2018, the Board of Selectmen authorized Wilton’s Environmental Affairs Director Mike Conklin to begin the permitting process for the removal of the dam.

Recently, at the Dec. 7 Board of Selectmen meeting, Conklin updated the BoS on the status of the planning process for the project, calling it “an amazing situation” involving critical partnerships with two key nonprofits, Trout Unlimited and Save the Sound.

But First… Some Background

Steve Gephard, a biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP), spoke at an event hosted by the Wilton Library in May 2019, about the detrimental effects of thousands of dams like Dana Dam that were constructed across the state, many of them dating back to the state’s earliest textile mills.

“We’re one of the most densely dammed states in the country,” said Gephard.

Gephard said that removing the dams can reverse decades of ecological damage and enable cleaning of sediment and sludge from river bottoms, so that migratory fish return and freshwater fish flourish, along with other aspects of the riverbank habitat.

According to Save the Sound, Dana Dam is the first impassable barrier for migratory fish on the Norwalk River, now that the Flock Process Dam downriver in Norwalk was removed in 2018. If the Dana Dam is removed, the Factory Pond Dam in Georgetown would be the only barrier left on the Norwalk River.

The Factory Pond dam in Georgetown (photo: Norwalk River Watershed Association)

In addition to ecological issues, the Dana Dam also poses a potential flood threat to the nearby Metro-North railroad infrastructure and even downtown Wilton.

According to Alex Krofta, an ecological restoration manager at Save The Sound, “While Dana Dam has unique challenges given the history and location of the site, the tremendous ecological and recreational value of the Norwalk River means that the benefits of this project greatly outweigh the complexities.”

But not surprisingly, removing a dam of Dana’s size and age is no small undertaking.

Critical Partnerships: A Win/Win for Wilton

Conklin told the BoS that Save the Sound, one of the most experienced dam removal organizations in the state, would be managing the project.

As GMW previously reported, Save the Sound received grant funding for the Dana Dam removal.

Conklin believes the benefits will come with little to no cost to the town.

“We are in an amazing situation where Save the Sound has stepped up to be the project manager… as far as the costs go, we are hopeful that the entire project will be completed with grant funding and there’ll be no expense to the town… We’re not foreseeing any expense to the town,” he said, adding, “The grant award will go to Save the Sound and they will administer the grants, bid the work, and hire the contractors.”

The Town of Wilton would merely be the landowner permitting the work to be done, while project responsibility would lie with Save the Sound.

Selectwoman Deb McFadden called the arrangement “a great win” for the town. “This is exciting,” she said. “Somebody else is going to manage it. Somebody else paid for it. This is a real great win. Let’s do more projects like this!”

Conklin reported Save the Sound was already conducting sediment sampling, and they were also handling the coordination with state agencies on various matters.

The state and federal permitting process would be done in 2021, with project completion in 2022–a timetable Conklin acknowledged “might sound aggressive” but nonetheless was the aim.

He also assured the BoS that Trout Unlimited would be involved at every step. Wilton has worked successfully with Trout Unlimited in the past, such as in 2019, when Trout Unlimited partnered with the town on a habitat enhancement project along a half-mile stretch of the Norwalk River at Schenck’s Island.

Implications for the NRVT?

Dana Dam is a popular fishing spot and visible from the Norwalk River Valley Trail, between the Merwin Meadows parking lot and School Road.

Conklin assured the BoS that work on the dam would not impede pedestrian use of the NRVT. Although the worksite would be adjacent to the trail, safety fencing would be constructed to prevent unauthorized public access to the site, while leaving the trail itself unimpeded.

Next Steps

The BoS approved two motions during the meeting: first, to authorize Conklin and Town Engineer Frank Smeriglio to make certain technical decisions related to the dam project; and second, to authorize the drafting of a “memo of understanding” between the town and Save the Sound (to be drafted by Save the Sound’s legal team but reviewed by Wilton town counsel) which would be brought back to the BoS prior to finalizing.

In the meantime, dam removal plans will be further developed, and final plans would be presented to the board of selectmen for approval. Conklin did not offer a timeline for those plans to be completed.

Historical Tidbit

In his wonderful book, Wilton, Connecticut: Three Centuries of People, Places and Progress, author Robert Russell recounts how the Dana Dam came into existence (see pp.382-383). Charles Dana was a wealthy businessman who purchased the original 1852 Wilton train station building and moved it to his sizable property along the Norwalk River, where he converted the building to a summer house. He built the dam to create a pond there. After falling into disrepair over the years, the house was acquired by the Wilton Historical Society, then dismantled and rebuilt on what is now the Lambert Corners property. Renowned architect Robert Faesy and preservationist Walter R.T. Smith were also involved in the process.

Wilton’s original train station became the Charles Dana summer house on the Norwalk River, and now resides at Lambert Corners (photo: Wilton Historical Society)