Feedback from public on Potter Hill Dam encouraged at Thursday Zoom meeting

WESTERLY — A team of engineers, scientists, and community partners evaluating potential solutions for the flood risks posed by the deteriorating Potter Hill Dam will discuss their findings Thursday during an online public information session.

Members of the public are encouraged to participate in the 6 p.m. virtual meeting and will be given an opportunity to ask questions and share information about the river. The meeting will be conducted at Phone access will be available by calling 929-205-6099 (toll call) or 877-853-5257 (toll-free call). The meeting identification number is 860 5625 9542.

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.

Experts say the dam is the last major barrier to fish and public recreation on the river. 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.

As work on the Bradford and White Rock dams proceeded, organizers wondered how to address the Potter Hill Dam, whose owner has floated plans to redevelop the associated mill property for years. When the town applied for the NOAA grant, the mill property owner, Renewable Resources Inc., provided a letter of support for the grant application. Since then, town officials have petitioned a Superior Court judge, asking the court to put the mill property into receivership. The case is pending.

“Every one of those projects has included, to one degree or another, an aspect of: ‘What about Potter Hill?” said Chris Fox, Wood-Pawcatuck Association executive director.

Mitigation efforts at the Bradford and White Rock dams were designed with the Potter Hill Dam in mind and changes that could occur there in the future, Fox said. Potential work on the Potter Hill Dam would allow a more developed downstream area than the other projects, Fox noted.

“I hope people will be open-minded and recognize all these other projects and investments in the river over the years,” Fox said.

Public input is a critical part of developing potential options and solutions, Fox said.

“We really won’t know what the options are in the future until we have this sort of workshop and roll out what we’ve learned scientifically and get the community’s socio-economic, cultural input on the project,” Fox said.

Citing flood risks in downtown Westerly and in Pawcatuck, municipal leaders 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.

Gina Fuller, executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District, said work to develop ways to address the Potter Hill Dam has been a team effort.

“The Southern Rhode Island Conservation District is excited to be part of this project. Addressing the hazard presented by the dam and mill was identified as a top priority in the resiliency plan we helped the town develop in 2019 through the community resiliency building workshop. The association, the Nature Conservancy, and others have worked for decades to restore the natural functions of the river to improve fish passage, and this collaboration on this study is an excellent example of how multiple partners can work together to leverage funding and achieve multiple goals,” Fuller said.

The NOAA Restoration Center has also approved an additional $750,000 for the project for permitting and construction in future years, pending the outcome of the planning phase. The Nature Conservancy has pledged to help the town apply to state agencies, foundations and individual donors to raise matching funds for future phases of the project.

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