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Herring's return marks new chapter at First Herring Brook in Scituate

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  June 14, 2012 02:57 PM

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The effects of more stringent water measures in Scituate are starting to pay off, not only in the form of a prestigious environmental award, but also in the return of herring to First Herring Brook.

According to Sara Grady, a South Shore regional coordinator for the Massachusetts Bays Program and an ecologist at the North and South River Watershed Association, the limitations on lawn watering in addition to several other initiatives have had a large, positive impact on the town.

However, the changes didn’t happen overnight.

Previously, high water demand had been drying out the brook, which moves in a tributary upstream from the North River and becomes First Herring Brook. The brook flows to a dam at Old Oaken Bucket Pond, and then to a dam and impoundment at the reservoir.

Herring, a marker of ecological quality, need the water tables to be steady in order to migrate in for mating in the spring, then migrate out in the fall.

“It’s been a process,” Grady said. “We have been monitoring flow in the brook since 2003, and in 2005 we worked with a lot of local, state, and federal partners to model the system and find a way to balance municipal and ecological demand.”

The result of the analysis was a two-pronged effort that first limited lawn irrigation usage to one day a week throughout the summer months, putting less demand on the reservoir.

Second, the Scituate Department of Public Works and the Water Department implemented a new operating plan for the water division, one that prescribed flow releases from the water supply as well as releases over the fish ladders in the system.

As a result, water usage decreased substantially. Grady estimates that the town saved approximately 300,000 gallons of water a day through the initiative.

“Prior to that, the summer usage almost doubled the winter usage,” Grady said.

In March, Scituate selectmen voted to continue the plan, despite some grumbling from neighbors who complained about the effect on property values.

Water tables also stabilized in the brook.

Because of the efforts, Grady nominated the town for an award from the Gulf of Maine Council. Soon thereafter, Scituate received notification that it had received the Marine Environment’s Sustainable Community Award.

Given to one community in the Gulf of Maine Council region, which includes Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, as well as the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia regions of Canada, the award recognizes a community for exemplary work in sustainability efforts.

Scituate is the only community to have received the award, which was created this year.

After receiving notification about the award, approximately 14 herring were spotted in the brook on May 9, marking the first return of the fish to the area in decades.

“Herring are a very important part of the coastal ecosystem,” Grady said. “They provide food for many of the species that the community cares about, like stripped bass and osprey and egret. And the name of the stream is First Herring Brook. Having herring in the brook seemed right.”

Between the award and the return of the fish, Scituate is showing that a town can support their municipal water needs while also keeping an eye out for the environmental impacts, Grady said.

Yet the town isn’t done with their efforts to bring to brook back to its former glory.

According to Grady, the next step will be to look at the fish ladders inside the brook to see if they can be made more functional or efficient. The operational plan also needs some refinement as it gets implemented throughout the year.

“The next milestone could be … starting to see a population trend. It would take a few years to establish that,” Grady said.

If not enough herring came back on their own, the association might work with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries to establish a run in the brook.

Eventually, the town would like to see the brook operate on its own.

“Perhaps even a bigger milestone would be to have herring migrate all the way up to the reservoir and be able to make it out in the fall. Then you would have a system that functioned with the complete ecology that it’s meant to all year round,” Grady said.

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