Potter Hill dam: Should it stay or should it go?

By Dale P. Faulkner Sun staff writer

WESTERLY — The Pawcatuck River offers those fortunate to gain access an escape into a virtual eco-playground bursting with opportunities for fishing, bird watching, paddling and, in some spots, motorized boating.

A proposal to remove the dam that spans the river at the Potter Hill Mill has some residents worried the river will lose many of the attributes it has had since the mid-1700s, when the first dam is believed to have been built at the mill location.

Specifically, they say, the river will narrow by 60 feet, transforming riverfront property into mud flats or new areas of vegetation. The narrowing will impede access to the river for both recreational uses of the river and for emergency responders, and water depths will drop making motorized boating unlikely, the residents say. Kayakers will struggle to find their footing if they overturn because of the mud, the critics say.

“The river is going to be inaccessible to any homeowner who lives here now because you aren’t going to be able to get to the river through the vegetation and mud,” said Brian Tarpey, whose Hiscox Road home looks out onto the river. “None of us will be able to see the river never mind getting access to it.”

Those concerned with the dam removal project also say it will lead to the demise of navigable wetlands that provide spawning grounds for fish leaving forested wetlands.

“This is a beautiful set of wetlands that are going to be drained, and this set of wetlands and the river itself are a recreational asset to the town,” Peter Ogle said during a recent boat tour of the river, south of the dam.

Ogle, who lives off of Shore Road, has joined with Tarpey and his wife, Judy, and others in Westerly and Hopkinton in an effort to stop the dam removal project. Removal of the dam has emerged as the preferred option developed by an engineering firm hired under a $100,000 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant awarded for marine habitat restoration.

“I think somebody in the Nature Conservancy is going to be very embarrassed that they are supporting the devastation, or lets use their words the ‘conversion,’ of hundreds of yards of wetlands,” Ogle said.

Proponents of removing the dam, including the Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island, a lead partner in the NOAA-funded effort, say the project will remove the last remaining impediment to certain aquatic wildlife, including river herring, American shad and American eel from getting up river to spawn.

Removal of the dam, which is called for in the municipal Comprehensive Plan, will also mitigate flood risks, proponents of the project say.

Ogle and the Tarpeys push back on nearly all the project team’s claims and have gathered the names of close to 600 people on an online petition that states their support for improving fish passage but opposition to removing the dam. Rather than remove the dam, the Tarpeys say, the dam’s sluice gates should be removed or repaired and a fish ladder at the dam upgraded or replaced.

“The cost of removing the dam is too steep for what we are going to gain when it could be done with a modified, modern fish ladder and eliminating the old gates to stop water from going under the mill,” Brian Tarpey said as he steered his pontoon boat during the river tour.

The mill property is the subject of receivership proceedings in Superior Court. The court proceeding is focused on addressing the health and safety hazards posed by the deteriorating mill.

Proponents of the dam removal project have acknowledged the failing sluice gates cause water to flow through the derelict mill instead of over the dam and that the water flow confuses fish and keeps many from using the decades-old fish ladder.

The Nature Conservancy says Ogle and the Tarpeys are exaggerating the effects of removing the dam.

“In general, a natural, free-flowing river will be narrower than a river that’s artificially backed up behind a failing dam. By how much depends on the distance from the dam, the depth of the river and seasonal conditions. If the dam is removed, the river will still be 100 feet wide near Potter Hill. Closer to Hiscox Road, in an average section of the river, it will be 75 feet wide, maybe a little wider,” said Tim Mooney, a Nature Conservancy spokesman.

Dropping the depth of the river, Mooney said, will mitigate flood risk for families that live along the river by providing more storage area for storm water.

The Tarpeys are worried that what is now their riverfront area will fill with invasive species, but Mooney said the project will include monitoring for and addressing invasive species if they do appear. “However, we expect that native grasses, wildflowers and shrubs will rapidly colonize the riverbanks. The seed bank is there. It’s just been waiting for an opportunity,” Mooney said.

Removing the dam, Money said, will only benefit wildlife.

“The single best thing we can do for fish in the Pawcatuck — both resident fish and migrating river herring — is to reconnect the river by removing dams and allowing them to swim freely up and down,” Mooney said. “From an ecological perspective — whether we’re talking about fish, or herons, or turtles — dam removal would benefit the river’s wildlife, not hurt it. These positive effects will be felt far beyond Westerly, to Rhode Island Sound and the western Northern Atlantic.”

The dam, Mooney said, caused the drowning of hundreds of acres of wetlands.

“Removing the dam offers our best chance at getting those wetlands back and restoring the river to its natural, pre-development state. The wetlands that are there now may shift from one type to another. But we would see an expansion of the scrub-shrub wetlands that provide greater benefits to wildlife and are more resilient to climate change,” Mooney said.

Mooney said the Nature Conservancy’s Board of Trustees supports the dam removal project unanimously, and he noted that removal of the dam was given top priority during a resiliency workshop the conservancy and state Infrastructure Bank conducted in Westerly in 2019.

“The Nature Conservancy, NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state Department of Environmental Management, the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association and others have come on board because there is the potential to do a lot of good for the environment at the same time,” Mooney said. “Engineers and scientists are looking at numerous options that span the range of feasible alternatives, including ‘no action’ and alternatives that retain the headpond but improve fish passage.”

The project has come as a surprise to members of the Town Council despite the fact that the town is the sponsoring entity for the NOAA grant. Both the town of Westerly and the town of Hopkinton are cited as potential sources of $100,000 to be used to fulfill non-federal funding requirements for the second and third year of the NOAA grant.

Council President Sharon Ahern and Councilor Karen Cioffi both took a boat tour of the river recently with the Tarpeys. Cioffi said members of the council had recently received numerous email messages from individuals concerned about the potential effects of removing the dam. Attorney John Dorsey, the court appointed special master who is handling the receivership of the Potter Hill Mill property, is scheduled to appear before the council during a meeting Monday at 5:30 p.m. at Town Hall to discuss the process for the dam.

Contracts between the town and Fuss & O’Neil, the engineering firm that is studying the dam and developing options to improve fish passage under the NOAA grant, were never reviewed by the council, Ahern said. The original contract was signed by former Town Manager J. Mark Rooney in 2020. He also signed an amendment to the contract in August of this year.

“I do have a lot of questions,” Ahern said. “It was new information for me and I believe it will be for the council. Neither the contract nor the amendments were put before the council, so I think we have some catching up to do and ultimately it will be a policy decision for the Town Council.”

Fuss & O’Neil’s report on its work is expected shortly and will be the subject of discussion during a council meeting scheduled for Oct. 18, Ahern said.

She stressed that no decisions have been made on how to proceed and said the report from Fuss & O’Neill will be advisory. “It’s just information. It’s not a mandate,” Ahern said.

Cioffi and Ahern both said they were struck by the beauty of the river.

“This all came as a surprise. I knew we were working on the mill, trying to make that safe, take it down and clean it up, but when we started getting a deluge of emails talking about the dam I was perplexed,” Cioffi said.

Since taking the boat ride, Cioffi said she started researching potential alternatives to removing the dam.

“I’m curious where the Town Council is going to go with this and what Fuss & O’Neill are going to say,” Cioffi said.

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