By ecoRI News staff
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has awarded $100,000 to the town of Westerly, R.I., to begin design and engineering work to improve fish passage in the Pawcatuck River, which could lead to the partial or complete removal of the Potter Hill Dam.
A combination of town funds and contributions from The Nature Conservancy and the Westerly Conservation Commission will match the NOAA grant.
Potter Hill was one of 11 new projects to receive funding through NOAA’s Community-Based Restoration Program, which supports fish habitat restoration and local resilience efforts. Westerly’s proposal for Potter Hill was one of more than 100 other projects from across the United States and was the highest scoring application in the Northeast.
The town has awarded an engineering and design contract to Fuss & O’Neill. The Providence-based consulting firm will be responsible for developing a fish passage improvement plan for Potter Hill. As part of that effort, the firm will assess the condition of the dam and its raceway, model anticipated changes in river levels and floodplain, collect and analyze sediment samples, and characterize potential effects on private properties, bridges, wetlands, and other environmental conditions.
Project planning is expected to take about a year to complete. During this phase, the town will schedule public workshops, in partnership with the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association and the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District.
NOAA has approved an additional $750,000 for the project in future years, for permitting and construction, pending the outcome of the planning phase.
“I’d love to see the dam removed and allow for a free-flowing river once again,” said John O’Brien, policy and partnership specialist for The Nature Conservancy. “The engineers will look at a number of strategies for enhancing fish passage at Potter Hill and come back with their recommendations, and then we’ll go from there.”
Citing flood risks in downtown Westerly and in Pawcatuck, Conn., municipal officials and local stakeholders identified the Potter Hill Dam and the adjacent mill as one of their highest priorities in an August 2019 community resilience workshop organized by The Nature Conservancy and the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank. Last rebuilt in 1903, the dam and its raceway are failing, its water control gates are inoperable, and the dilapidated mill is falling into the river.
The Potter Hill Dam is the last significant barrier to migratory fish passage on the Pawcatuck River. For nearly two decades various organizations and agencies have worked to open the river for spring-migrating river herring, American shad, and American eel.
The Nature Conservancy and the US Fish & Wildlife Service led the removal of the White Rock Dam (2015) and the Bradford Dam (2017). Prior to that, the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association and NOAA improved passage at Lower Shannock Dam (2010), Upper Shannock Dam/Horseshoe Falls (2012), and Kenyon Mill Dam (2013).
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