Removal of ancient dam will both help Pawcatuck River fish and reduce risk of flooding

By Judy Benson, The Day

As if on cue, a great blue heron soared low over White Rock Dam on the Pawcatuck River Friday afternoon, just in time to hear John O’Brien explain the plan to tear down the concrete barrier and reopen that stretch of the waterway to some of the big bird’s favorite meals – herring, eel and shad.

“This is the first major obstacle for fish swimming up the Pawcatuck River,” said O’Brien, partnership specialist with the Rhode Island office of the Nature Conservancy, while standing on the Pawcatuck side of the dam. “We want to address fish passage and to reduce the risk of flooding.”

Signs of the dam’s disrepair are obvious – a large tree grows out of the center of the structure, and water pours through two openings in a channel that divert the natural flow. Since 1770, a dam at the site has restricted flows and passage for migrating fish at the juncture between Pawcatuck, off Alice Court, and the end of White Rock Road in Westerly, just after the river takes a sharp bend from the east and turns south toward Little Narragansett Bay. The latest version of a series of structures first built to provide water power for textile mills along the river, the current concrete structure dates to about 1940 and has long outlived its purpose.

“It’s only a matter of time before that dam fails,” Nils Wilberg, project manager for the engineering firm Fuss & O’Neill, told about 50 people at an informational meeting in Westerly Wednesday. “Our choice is to remove it in a controlled manner to reduce the risk.”

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