White Rock dam removal plan unveiled by engineers

WESTERLY — A standing-room-only crowd packed the conference room at the Westerly police station on Wednesday to learn more about plans to remove the White Rock Dam on the lower Pawcatuck River.

The engineering firm Fuss and O’Neill was awarded a $313,793 contract to design the project, which began in September and is planned for completion in 2016. The pre-construction phase of the work involved researching the river, its flow, its sediments, and the fish that live in it. The project is being funded by a $2.3 million Superstorm Sandy recovery grant.

“The studies, the data collection and the assessments are necessary so that we can develop a strategy to optimize fish passage,” said Nils Wiberg, the project manager. “We want to get as many fish upstream with as little effort as possible, so they can move through the fish ladders and get to their spawning areas.”

Fisheries biologist Phil Edwards of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management said the agency has been stocking the 22-mile river with different species of migratory fish since the removal of the Kenyon and Lower Shannock Falls dams and the construction of a fish ladder at Horseshoe Falls.

“What we have done is stock the upper systems,” Edwards said. “We have stocked adult river herring brood stock into Worden’s Pond and Watchaug Pond. What happens is, those fish spawn and they exit the system, but the eggs hatch, and the juveniles stay the summer months in those freshwater systems. During the fall, they migrate to the ocean and they’re now imprinted for the Pawcatuck River, so after three or four years, they will return.”

The project is a joint effort of a private organization, The Nature Conservancy, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with the participation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the DEM, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association.

Fuss and O’Neill has completed its preliminary assessments and now has a design that will restore river connectivity, allowing fish to move from Worden’s Pond to Little Narragansett Bay. Removing the dam will also reduce the risk of flooding by lowering upstream water levels.

“The dam impounds the water so far back, and this is a starting point for the flood condition that develops. You have a certain amount of water that’s at a standing elevation and floodwater comes in and adds to that and floods the adjacent riverbank areas,” Wiberg said.

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