By Dale P. Faulkner Sun staff writer
WESTERLY — A new question-and-answer document is available for those hoping to learn about plans to remove the Potter Hill Mill dam that spans the Pawcatuck River and once provided power for the now-decrepit textile facility.
The 21-page informational piece was developed by the project team and provided to the town councils in Westerly and Hopkinton and is also posted on Westerly’s municipal website. The document attempts to answer questions about the project that have been submitted to the project team through Westerly’s website.
“At the public meetings, the project team encouraged folks to submit their questions to the town of Westerly’s website. And we got a lot of great questions. The Q&A document gives the project team a way to answer the community’s questions and provide an update on the status of the project at the same time,” said Tim Mooney, spokesman for the Nature Conservancy.
The private, non-profit Nature Conservancy is working on the project along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Department of Environmental Management, the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District and the town of Westerly.
Removal of the dam has emerged as the project team’s preferred option for accomplishing the project’s main goals: improving fish passage in the river and reducing flood risks. As the question-and-answer document states, repairing the dam has been ruled out because of maintenance that would have to be performed once the repairs were made. The dam and mill property were both petitioned into receivership by the town of Westerly after property owner Edward Carapezza and his Renewable Resources Inc. failed in efforts to redevelop it. Prior owners also allowed the mill property to languish.
The dam is the last barrier to fish passage on the river. Many members of the project team have worked together for years to remove other dams and obstacles in the river.
One of the questions addressed in the document explains why a design similar to the one developed for the Bradford fish passage is not feasible for the Potter Hill location. Construction of a nature-like fishway passage “would require a larger impact footprint, greater wetland disturbance, and the need to import a significant amount of fill material into the river to construct the step-pool system,” according to the document. Additionally, the document states, regulatory and permitting authorities require the least environmentally damaging alternative.
“In addition, the cost of this type of fishway would be greater to construct than the other alternatives considered and would require long-term maintenance and repair. The rown of Westerly will not be responsible for the operations and maintenance of such a structure,” the document states.
The question-and-answer document also addresses the effect removal of the dam might have on private drinking-water wells, especially on the Hopkinton side of the river. According to the document, the project team has identified 125 properties that warrant further examination. Of the approximately 50 property owners who responded to a survey conducted earlier this year, some said they already experience problems with their wells.
“A number of (respondents) have indicated that their wells have previously experienced lack of water, or draw water from shallow sand formations saturated by river water,” the document states.
If no action were taken on the dam, property owners whose wells “are affected by changes in river flows will have limited capacity to provide a reliable source of drinking water, as leakage rates through the Potter Hill dam’s failing millrace headgates increase river levels between Potter Hill Dam and Bradford,” the document states.
The US Fish & Wildlife Service contributed additional funds to the project that will enable an independent third-party assessment of the dam. Fuss & O’Neill, the project engineer, will contract with a second engineering firm to look at the dam and the millrace headgates, Mooney said. He said the best time to do the assessment is typically in late summer or early fall, but it may be another month before the river is low enough to do the work.