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Unclogging the bog

An ambitious effort begins to restore the Eel River, a coastal waterway degraded by years of pollution

In Plymouth, a backhoe (in far rear of photo) was at work earlier this month turning a cranberry bog back to wetlands to improve water quality for native species. In Plymouth, a backhoe (in far rear of photo) was at work earlier this month turning a cranberry bog back to wetlands to improve water quality for native species. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / December 27, 2009

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In a signature effort for the state’s environmental restoration campaign, workers have begun restoring the headwaters of the Eel River, a 5-mile coastal waterway that flows past tourist mecca Plimoth Plantation and into Plymouth Harbor through some of the town’s choicest countryside.

Public and private environmental agencies say the ambitious project to return the Eel to its natural state will be good for fish, native plants, and other creatures that depend on a coastal river environment, as well as for people who fish, watch birds, and take nature walks.

“Brook trout will love this,’’ Tim Purinton, acting director of the state’s Division of Ecological Restoration, said recently, pointing to the restored stream’s “beautiful sinuosity’’ as excavators worked along a stretch of the winding 40-acre bog system that had long been altered by agriculture and other human activities. While trout are a “marquee species,’’ he said, their success means conditions are good for a host of other fish, plants, and turtles, including six rare and endangered species.

The work will also improve water quality, project officials said, on a river that a local environmental group says is imperiled by the town’s sewer plant and a recent pro posal to increase the facility’s capacity.

“We’ve always supported that [restoration] project,’’ said Mettie Whipple, president of the Eel River Watershed Association. “But we think the town should protect the whole watershed, not just 40 acres of it.’’

The group argues that the sewer plant discharges nitrogen-loaded waste water into the ground water, causing weeds to choke the river. It has appealed the sewer plant’s discharge permit to the state, but the case has not been resolved.

Using Community Preservation Act funds, the town of Plymouth purchased the cranberry bogs where the river begins as a ground water-fed spring in wetlands off Long Pond Road five years ago. Earlier this fall, a group of agencies drawing on federal and state funds began turning those bogs into native wetlands that will function as natural flood plains and serve as the starting point for the river’s restored channel. “I thought, what can we do with this?’’ said Kim Michaelis, the town’s environmental technician. The answer came from the state’s ongoing push to restore 3,000 acres of wetlands within 10 years. The state now has 70 habitat restoration projects in early phases. Many of them will learn from the Eel River project.

Most of the headwater bogs will become a white cedar swamp, a native ecological feature that has largely disappeared from the state. The project will also restore 4 miles of river bank, planting 17,000 white cedars to shade and cool the river, return curves and riffles to a natural channel, and add tree stumps to the stream to provide safe resting places for fish. A sandy rise at the river’s banks will attract Eastern box turtles, a listed rare species. Native eels, which spawn in the ocean, will return in greater numbers to the river.

In addition to trout, turtles, and eels, the restored habitat will profit rare and threatened species such as the bridle shiner (a small minnow), the barrens buckmoth, the adder’s-tongue fern, swamp oats, and the red-bellied cooter (a turtle).

Once the bog work is completed, contractor SumCo, which specializes in environmental restoration, will remove a dam and replace two culverts (one underneath Long Pond Road) with friendlier passages for fish and other creatures. Work will continue through the winter.

Removing the Sawmill Dam, located between the bogs and Russell Mill Pond, will make it easier for fish to cruise the river’s length while leaving one side of the dam intact for historical and aesthetic reasons. The big stone blocks used by the 19th-century industrial dam builders will remain on the site. A more natural flow will allow the river to hold onto sediments, nutrients, and contaminants, protecting its downstream waters, officials said.

After the heavy work is done, new wetland plants will be put in, probably in May. A footbridge over the dam and a path along the river and restored wetlands will give people a place to walk and watch the results.

“We’re grateful for the investment,’’ said Rob Johnson, program director for the Southeast Massachusetts office of The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that has advocated for habit preservation in the Plymouth area.

The $1.9 million restoration project is a shot in the arm for the local economy, too, an “eco-stimulus’’ project producing green jobs in engineering and construction for its six-month duration, Purinton said. State officials said the project will be able to tap into federal programs to provide $1 million for the work.

While the project’s partners cited water quality benefits, in part from taking commercial cranberry bogs out of production, Johnson said there is more work to be done in the area. Water quality throughout the watershed is affected not only by chemicals used by commercial agriculture, but also by storm-water runoff, septic systems, and lawn treatment chemicals, he said.

In an effort to clean up storm runoff, communities are now required to file annual reports on improvements to federal regulators. Environmental regulators are relying largely on public education to reduce reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides by both commercial and residential property owners.

State environmental regulators and the Eel River Watershed Association disagree over the role played by individual septic systems and the town sewer plant in adding excess nitrogen to the river. While the state blames at least part of the problem on old septic systems, the local environmental group places the onus on the town sewer plant, located downstream from the headwaters restoration project.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.