Hearing on Potter Hill dam removal draws mixed reactions

By Dale P. Faulkner Sun staff writer

WESTERLY — A proposal to remove the Potter Hill dam is drawing both support and concern from residents of Westerly and Hopkinton.

Several residents registered their opinions and concerns during a public information meeting conducted Thursday on the proposal, which is being studied through a $100,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The grant was matched by the town and the Nature Conservancy and is being used to study fish passage and flood mitigation including removal or partial removal of the dam from the Pawcatuck River.

Proponents of the plan said removing the dam would remove a safety hazard to kayakers and canoeists who are forced to take their watercraft out of the water and walk around the dam. Others said removal of the dam would also improve fish passage and return the river to its natural state.

Residents with concerns said they feared removal of the dam would change ground water levels and threaten the viability of their drinking water wells, however. Others said changes to wetlands in the area would hurt wildlife and some said anticipated lower water levels would cause the values of their homes to decrease.

Nils Wiberg, a water resources engineer with Fuss & O’Neill, an environmental engineering firm with offices in Providence, provided an overview of two options for removing the dam but also said other options could be pursued and said input from community members would be considered as planning continues.

Under one option the dam would be removed and a cobble bed channel constructed. The project would enhance safety and improve boating, reduce flood risk, and improve water quality and the ecology of the river, Wiberg said. The second option would produce similar results and would involve installation of a riffle pool channel. That option might produce better downstream improvements that would improve fish passage, he said.

Wiberg said that simply removing the dam and not performing channel improvements would not allow for achieving the goals of improving fish passage and boater safety, and reducing river channel erosion.

Removal of the dam could effect shallow or poorly performing wells that are currently, in essence, relying on the dam to provide adequate groundwater levels, Wiberg said. He encouraged property owners with concerns about their wells to contact Westerly town officials to arrange for an interview or site visit.

Water levels in the river are projected to decline by 1.6-2.5 feet depending on location and water will move toward the center of the river channel if the dam is removed, Wiberg said. Changes to wetlands along the river as a result of removing he dam would lead to a greater proliferation of shrub wetlands, he said.

To date, Fuss & O’Neill’s team has conducted a bathymetric survey to determine the velocity of the river and its depth. Bridges that cross the river were also studied with an eye toward understanding how they would be effected if the dam is removed. Sediment from the river bed was taken and tested for a range of pollutants.

One resident, Harvey Perry, said he hoped removal of the dam would lead town officials to address the decrepit mill property which relied on the dam for power. The property is currently subject to a Superior Court monitored receivership process aimed at improving the property, officials said.

State Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy (D-Hopkinton) and State Sen. Dennis Algiere (R-Westerly) both said they had received calls from constituents who are concerned about how removal of the dam would effect their properties. Kennedy said the callers he spoke with were worried about their wells and property values if the river is dramatically changed near their homes.

“Since the initial announcement of this meeting I did hear from several people that expressed concerns specifically about river depth … and the project potentially rendering their current river front into nothing but swamp,” Kennedy said.

Scott Bill Hirst, a member of the Hopkinton Town Council, asked to have Hopkinton officials invited into the planning process.

Wood-Pawcatuck Association Executive Director Chris Fox said his organization and others working on the project place a premium on input from residents.

“This is a very community specific process. I hope residents of Hopkinton and Westerly are not thinking of an our side vs your side. That is absolutely not what a project like this is. We want both sides to come together to find solutions for the community as a whole,” Fox said.

The association and several of other organizations have worked together for about 10 years to improve the ecology of the river system. The work has included removal of dams in Bradford and White Rock. Removal of the Potter Hill dam is viewed by some as the final piece in restoring natural flows of the river.

Property values might increase, Fox said, because removal of the dam would result in decreased flood risks that could lead to decreased insurance costs.

While addressing one resident’s concerns, Wiberg described the dam as “low risk” but said it presents a hazard to the community especially because, he said, the property’s owner has not taken steps to maintain the dam or its failing gates.

“There are a range of alternatives. We are here to present what we feel would the most beneficial to the range of the community but the real point was to get input,” Wiberg said.

A second pubic information meeting is expected to be scheduled for later this year. Those with concerns or questions are asked to visit http://westerlyri.gov/765/Pawcatuck-River-at-Potter-Hill for information and to leave questions.

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