WESTERLY — The private organizations, state and federal departments, and local officials who are studying the potential removal of the Potter Hill Mill dam as a means to improve fish passage and reduce flood risks will conduct a second public workshop on Thursday.
The workshop, which will be conducted virtually, is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. and can be accessed at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/82081393410. The meeting can also be reached by calling 929-205-6099 or 877-853-5257 and can be viewed on Cox Channel 18 or Verizon Channel 29.
Last year the town received a $100,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which was matched by the town and the Nature Conservancy, to study fish passage and flood mitigation including removal or partial removal of the dam. The study, being conducted by environmental engineering firm Fuss & O’Neill Inc., entails assessing the dam, analyzing sediment samples, and looking at potential changes around private property, bridges and wetlands. Additional grants are available to cover the cost of removing the dam.
For nearly two decades, the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, Nature Conservancy, NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Department of Environmental Management, Southern Rhode Island Conservation District and others have worked to open the river for spring-migrating river herring, American shad and American eel. Other projects to improve fish passage have taken place at the Bradford Dam upriver from Potter Hill and the White Rock Dam.
Officials with some of the organizations say the dam and its raceway are failing and its water-control gates are inoperable. An engineer who is studying the dam, during an information meeting on the project in March, said complete sudden failure of the dam would result in severe flooding down river of the dam. He also noted that the dam has not been maintained in many years.
Residents from Hopkinton and Westerly spoke both in favor of removing the dam and in opposition to the proposal during a public workshop conducted in March. Those who spoke in favor said removing the dam would return the Pawcatuck to its natural state and improve its ecology. Opponents raised concern about the potential for plummeting home values resulting from an anticipated drop in the water level of the river. Some said removing the dam would also harm their drinking water wells.
Mark Urso, whose Hiscox Road residence is on the river near the dam, raised several concerns about the proposed dam removal project in a recent e-mail to The Sun. He questioned whether kayakers and other paddlers would benefit from removing the dam or whether the location of the dam would remain hazardous. He also raised concerns about how much the river level will drop if the dam is removed and disagreed with officials’ assertion that removing the dam would mitigate flood risks for the downtown area of Westerly.
“Generally I think it’s a great idea to improve the dam, but removing it would undo all the landscaping/construction/docks/views/ecology and many aspects that have been in existence since the mid 19th century. This dam was built (according to a source I saw) in the 1780s. Everything built since the mid 1800s, All the houses and properties, were built with the current river in place,” Urso said in the e-mail.
Urso also called on officials, especially members of the Westerly Town Council, to separate the discussion of the dam discussion and policy decisions on the decrepit Potter Hill Mill property. While cleaning up the mill, which is falling into the river, is necessary, removing the dam is not, Urso said. He also favors repairing the antiquated fish ladder associated with the dam. The mill property is subject to receivership proceedings, which the town requested, in Superior Court.
Gina Fuller, executive director of Southern Rhode Island Conservation District and a Westerly resident, refuted several of Urso’s concerns during an interview Monday. She said removing the dam would allow water in wetlands and other areas to move and “thereby reduce the severity of flooding in areas such as River Road, Hiscox Road, Route 91 in the Chapman Swamp area, and Pound Road.”
“Removing the dam will improve the ability of the wetlands behind the dam to provide flood protection for both the areas above and below the dam. Currently the dam is creating an impediment and artificially holding water in areas that would otherwise provide flood storage capacity,” Fuller said.
Supervised and engineered removal of the dam will allow for a safe and controlled release of water currently held by the dam, and river “levels will return to a more natural state and the water will continue to flow within the river channel,” Fuller said.
Removal of the White Rock and Bradford Dams and other projects designed to improve fish passage and the ecology of the river have led to an increased population of herring and other fish species in the river and the return of ospreys and egrets, Fuller said.