National Park Service removes dams on Van Campens Brook in Millbrook Village, N.J.

| November 9, 2021

National Park Service Watergate Restoration Project Excavators at work on Pond 10
Excavators moving the soil and rock that made up the dam on Pond 10. PHOTO CREDIT: NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

Editor’s note: All over the watershed, water engineers are evaluating dams and how they affect the flow of water. Sometimes local people are fond of the way it is now (as it was for the Columbia Dam on the Paulins Kill.) Other times there’s some confusion about the benefit because at first the “before” looks a lot prettier than the immediate “after.” In time, the after will look just fine and the ecosystem will rebound to its natural state — a big plus as we begin to feel the effects of climate change and the way heavy rains lead to flooding where there hasn’t been flooding.

Lots of small streams flow through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which straddles New Jersey and Pennsylvania as well as the Delaware River. 

Before there was a park, this land was worked by the people who lived here. They created many low earthen dams to control where the water flowed. The National Park Service/Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area has been working to improve the ecosystems of Van Campens Brook, near Millbrook Village, on the New Jersey side of the river.

According to Frank Dale in his article “Mill Brook Days,”  published in Skylands Visitors, “the village is a re-created community of the 1800s where aspects of pioneer life are exhibited and occasionally demonstrated by skilled and dedicated docents throughout the village.” 

If you visited Mill Brook Village in the summer, you could see bright orange construction fences and some construction equipment through the trees. Although it might look like a construction site, the National Park Service is not building a strip mall or apartment complex. It is deconstructing four low earthen dams and old dam remnants to restore wetlands to the park. 

According to Kristy Boscheinen, the NPS Watergate Wetlands Restoration Project manager: “The project will allow Van Campens Brook to flow naturally within its floodplain. The floodplain also includes wetlands and having that stream-floodplain-wetland connection is a positive thing for the environment.” 

National Park Service Watergate Restoration Project Pond 10 before
BEFORE: This photo was taken looking west towards “Pond 10,” the largest pond at Watergate Recreation Site, prior to dewatering in early June 2021. The grass in the foreground is the area that was formerly maintained as a mowed lawn. PHOTO CREDIT: NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
National Park Service Watergate Restoration Project Pond 10 after
AFTER: From the same vantage point as the above, this is Pond 10 in late June 2021 after dewatering. The pond was shallow, averaging around 4 feet deep and 11 feet at its deepest. Fish and other animals were relocated to a different area prior to dewatering. PHOTO CREDIT: NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

Once upon a time, dams were built to force the water to “behave” on a convenient path that sometimes included the elimination of wetlands. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Wetlands are important features in the landscape that provide numerous beneficial services for people and for fish and wildlife. Some of these services, or functions, include protecting and improving water quality, providing fish and wildlife habitats, storing floodwaters and maintaining surface water flow during dry periods. These valuable functions are the result of the unique natural characteristics of wetlands.”

Time and research have taught us that it’s better when possible to let water flow where it wants naturally, to prevent further flood damage, which is the purpose of this project.

Finalized in 2020, the NPS’s proposed dam deconstruction will attempt to reverse human-made damage — specifically from the construction and maintenance of high-voltage transmission lines (electrical lines) while simultaneously strengthening the riverbanks with new vegetation.

By removing the man-made infrastructure — the dam and road — Van Campens Brook will be able to access its natural floodplain, a lower piece of land that the brook can empty into when there are heavy rains and flood events.

National Park Service Watergate Restoration Project Pond 10, from the east, before
BEFORE: Looking from the other direction, east, toward Pond 10 prior to dewatering in early June, 2021. The water was pumped from the pond, through a series of filters, and flowed into Van Campens Brook. This work had to be done while the pond water was still cold enough to not raise the temperature of Van Campens Brook, which could have affected native trout. PHOTO CREDIT: NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
National Park Service Watergate Restoration Project Pond 10, from the east, after
AFTER: Looking east toward Pond 10 from the same vantage point in August, 2021. Workers simultaneously began removing the earthen dam while they pumped the pond water out so that the pond couldn’t fill back up again. PHOTO CREDIT: NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

Properly designed (water way) connections allow for the diversion of floodwater (to flow) onto floodplains,” wrote Kevin F. Noon in a case study on the project. Noon works for the Water Resources Division of the National Park Service.

After reconstruction, the Van Campens Brook will no longer fill connecting streams during storms and so will prevent excess water going downstream. And that will further reduce damage caused by the high force of the moving water and reduce the flood damage risk to the downstream trails, bridges and natural resources.

The dam removal will also benefit the wild wood turtle and trout. Because of the increase in wetlands, wood turtles will thrive in the wetland meadows. And with the new water pattern, there won’t be warm water ponds and trout will thrive in the cooler water. 

The cooler water will also help prevent the spread of invasive species like the rusty crayfish. Shrubs also aid in preventing invasive species by shading the water from predicted heat-waves caused by climate change. 

National Park Service Watergate Restoration Project Sorting rocks from the dam
The materials from the dam are screened into piles depending on size. Large rock will be used for stream restoration, and the rest will be used to fill in the former pond area. PHOTO CREDIT: NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

Most of the buildings in Mill Brook Village will be untouched by the restoration work: Two buildings are expected to be impacted —the Mill Brook School, a one-room schoolhouse, and Garis Barn. 

Garis Barn will have the lower clapboards on the barn removed which “will allow floodwater to flow through, instead of against, the barn and prevent the buildup of rocks against its sides,” explained Boscheinen. Also, she explained the NPS is hoping to keep the barn in place and not relocate it to the village a half-mile away. (Moving the barn would cause it to lose its historic value.)  

Despite the improvements, it is expected that the barn will eventually fall down. Improvements from the project will slow the process. Through documenting photographs, profile drawings, and maps, the NPS is determined not to lose the barn’s history.

The barn and school will not be moved as they have already faced flood damage. During major flood events between 2004 and 2011, the Van Campens Brook pushed several tons of river rock up against the buildings and Columbia Walpack Turnpike, causing the area to be mostly inaccessible and at this point only visited by anglers. 

By leaving the already damaged buildings, the floodplain water will flow through the buildings reducing the force of the water downstream. It is unclear how long the buildings will stay standing, but the rest of Millbrook Village will continue to thrive. 

While we may be losing some buildings, Noon reports the new flood pattern will allow for “spring seeps, wetland meadows, and forested wetlands.”  The goal of the NPS is to plant shrubs and evergreens that are native to Pennsylvania. 

Overall, the increase in floodplains will benefit the ecosystem by returning the Watergate Restoration site to its natural wetland state. Within the next five years, visitors can expect an increase in fish at their favorite spots, wetland meadows will decorate the area, and visitors will be able to experience an increase of water bank critters, “raccoons, muskrats, mink, beaver and if you’re lucky enough, you might even see some otters frolicking along the bank.

Jessie Garrison

Jessie Garrison

Jessie Garrison is currently enrolled in East Stroudsburg University’s Professional and Digital Media Writing MA program. As an avid hiker she enjoys documenting the beautiful and sometimes heart wrenching stories of the trees and beyond through text and photos. As she continues to get her feet wet in the journalism field, Jessie hopes to spread her passion of caring for and protecting the local environment by teaching the public about important issues.

1 Comment

  1. Greg Garrison on November 16, 2021 at 7:21 am

    Very informative and well written. Nicely done.

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