Residents give opinions as Haverhill considers removing Little River Dam

By Mike LaBella

HAVERHILL — A proposal to remove the Little River Dam is drawing opinions from residents, including people who wonder whether the change would help create recreational areas around the river.

An organization hired by the city to study the impact of removing the dam says the move would reduce the chance of future flooding that is expected from climate change. It would also allow the river to return to its normal course, and help Haverhill’s efforts to lure developers to the vacant Stevens Mill property, the organization says.

A feasibility study that has begun is expected to be completed by June 30, officials said. In the meantime, residents can comment on the proposal to remove the dam and can also take a survey available through the city’s website.

Mayor James Fiorentini said Haverhill has been trying to sell the Stevens Mill property for 12 years and that a sale has been hindered in part by the liability associated with dam ownership. The mill is next to the river and the dam.

Officials said the old mill building is an eyesore, attracts vandals and poses a fire hazard.

If a decision is made to remove the dam, work would likely begin in late 2021 or in 2022 and would take up to six months to complete, officials said.

The work would include removing the dam, getting rid of trash from the river and its banks, removing contaminated sediment, creating green spaces and planting shade trees along the river, officials said.

Funding for the project would come from state and federal grants.

More than 60 people participated in an online forum on March 24 hosted by Arnold Robinson, a community planner with Fuss & O’Neill, the organization studying the possible dam removal.

City officials said benefits of removing the dam include better public access to the river, fish more easily passing through the area, improved water quality and a reduced risk of flooding in the Acre neighborhood.

A study shows that Haffner’s gas station and three other chemically hazardous sites near the dam could be impacted in the event of major flooding, officials said. They said removing the dam and allowing an uninterrupted flow of water would reduce the chance of flooding at those sites.

Little River originates in Kingston, New Hampshire. It flows over the dam and through a tunnel that passes under the downtown, where it spills into the Merrimack River.

Fiorentini said the dam was built in the early 1800s to provide water for the Stevens Mill.

He said the city received a state grant and used that money to hire Fuss & O’Neill to determine if removing the dam would help control flooding and eliminate liability of dam ownership.

Julianne Busa, senior environmental scientist with Fuss & O’Neill, said a feasibility study to be completed by June 30 will report on a number of things, including what contaminants remain in the river from the city’s industrial days.

“There are certain hot spots where the sediment would need to be dredged and removed,” she said, adding there is nothing to indicate the contaminated sediment cannot be removed safely.

Phil Moreschi, vice president of the Springfield-based Fuss & O’Neill, said any heavily contaminated sediment would be transferred to a licensed facility while lesser contaminated sediment might be allowed to flow downstream.

Busa said rainfall in the northeast is expected to increase 20% over the next few decades and if the dam failed, the city could be facing flooding, erosion, the undermining of upstream bridges, movement of contaminated sediment and other factors beyond its immediate control.

She said the solution is to take down the dam in a controlled fashion.

Haverhill Conservation Commission member Ralph Basiliere said that every time the state has removed a dam, the river involved has returned to its original course and thrived.

“I see no evidence that it would not happen here,” he said. “We recently have seen river herring migrating up to the dam, so one of the reasons to remove the dam is to allow them and other fish to migrate and spawn.”

In response to Brook Street resident Ann Spires asking if the banks of Little River could become a recreational area should the dam be removed, Busa said a design plan could include walking trails and green areas, maintaining depths for fish passage and opening the river to recreational boating.

“Historically it was a river and will continue to be a river,” Busa said, adding that state officials consider dam removal to be an ecological benefit.

Jose Estrada of Haverhill said he’s only seen the river rise once in the 14 years he’s lived near the waterway.

“I don’t think there’s a single person I talked to who abuts the river that has any complaints that would supersede benefits of having that dam removed,” he said,

Patricia Finley Hamilton of Haverhill said her family has owned property along the Little River for 100 years and that it has never flooded.

“The lowering of the river is my concern as far as the smell, and what they’ll uncover and how it will be cleaned up,” she said.

To comment on the proposal or to take a survey, visit and click on the image titled “Little River Dam project info MVP grant,” then beneath images of the dam, click on the link, “Sign up HERE.”

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