Plans to Remove Potter Hill Dam Put Residents and Town Officials at Odds
Municipal officials concerned about threat of flooding and those who live on the banks of Pawcatuck River worried about property values
June 17, 2021
The second public information meeting on the proposal to remove the Potter Hill Dam exposed tensions between the two affected Rhode Island municipalities, Hopkinton and Westerly. In addition, residents continued to voice concerns about how lower water levels might impact their riverfront properties, and especially, their wells.
The June 10 virtual meeting, a progress report on the removal project, was hosted by Westerly director of development services Lisa Pellegrini and moderated by Gina Fuller, district manager of the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District.
Built in the 1780s and rebuilt in the early 1900s, the Potter Hill Dam, next to the derelict Potter Hill Mill, is failing. The towns of Westerly and Hopkinton are near the dam, but it is Westerly that would be more severely flooded if the dam were to fail.
Pellegrini reiterated the goals of the project, the first of which is to restore the river to its natural condition.
“To improve the river habitat and fish migratory passage — that is essentially the number one goal of the grant that we received to improve fish passage,” she said, “and it’s also to make sure that we reduce the flood risk for the town, to have a safe and improved river for recreational boating opportunities.”
The project is a collaborative effort involving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), The Nature Conservancy, the Westerly Town Council, the Westerly Conservation Commission, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District and the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association.
The removal of the dam would be the final step in restoring the natural flow of the Pawcatuck River, which has received a “Wild and Scenic” designation from the National Park Service. The Lower Shannock, Horseshoe Falls and Kenyon Mill dams have already been removed, along with the White Rock and Bradford dams.
The project, funded by a multiyear grant, has received $100,000 from NOAA and in-kind donations totaling $112,500. Additional funding includes $102,000 for engineering studies from The Nature Conservancy, $30,000 from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and $15,000 from the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association.
The previous public information meeting on March 18 revealed that while there is a consensus that something must be done about the failing dam, there are concerns about possible damage to wells, loss of wetland habitat and impacts on properties that are now waterfront but might not be if the water level of the river drops significantly.
“People are very concerned with how that’s going to affect their property values,” Pellegrini said.
Project engineer Nils Wiberg of the Providence-based firm Fuss & O’Neill presented an overview of the dam and two options for its removal. The first option is preferred, he said, because it restores the river to its condition before the dam was built, removes a defective fish ladder and will require no maintenance once the project has been completed.
“Option one, just to construct a natural channel, is really the simplest and the least impactful, the least costly, and really provides the best way we feel to restore the channel again to the character that it was in its natural state,” he said.
Wiberg also described the deteriorating condition of the dam’s gates, which haven’t been inspected since 1993. Both the dam and the mill are currently in receivership.
“As bad as they were in 1993, they’ve only continued to get worse and so, really, what that means is there’s an increasing hazard to boaters, to downstream properties and the impoundment because of the poor condition of these gates,” he said.
The public outreach effort has ramped up in recent months, with officials from Westerly and Hopkinton participating in a site walk in early April. In addition, a survey was sent to owners of homes with wells to determine well depths and how they might be impacted by lower water levels.
In an effort to document the ecosystem as it is now and prepare for how it will change, a team of scientists from the University of Rhode Island is doing a wetlands assessment that will include analyses of the different types of soils, water flow and plant communities. The report is expected to be completed in the fall.
The outreach initiatives haven’t been enough for some Hopkinton residents who have argued that their town has not been a full participant in the process. During the public comment period, Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, D-Hopkinton, said he had received complaints from local homeowners.
“The town of Hopkinton was really not notified of anything regarding this project until March of this year,” he said. “I think we’ve got to be mindful of the fact that in 1757 Hopkinton was split off from the town of Westerly and that dam … half of it is in the town of Hopkinton and half of it is in Westerly and the dividing line is halfway down the river, so I think there has to be more involvement of the town of Hopkinton going forward on this.”
Hopkinton resident Jim Duksta, whose home is near the river, said he had submitted questions to the project’s website but had not received a response.
“I attended the meeting on March 18 and have submitted a number of questions to the website and additionally submitted a survey for my well, which appears to be impacted,” he said. “I’ve received no communications back from this team. I put up some very interesting questions and options that I’ve not heard discussed in any of these presentations.”
Duksta’s concerns weren’t addressed at the latest information meeting, either. Westerly town manager J. Mark Rooney said the purpose of the meetings was not to answer residents’ questions.
“I’d just like people to understand that this was not meant to be a public hearing where we would answer every question,” he said.
Rooney also stressed that Westerly was at the greatest risk for flood damage.
“We want to make sure that we have a plan that addresses the threat and has the lowest maintenance costs to the taxpayer and the threat to the economic viability of both downtowns,” he said.
In previous dam removal projects, some property owners whose wells were negatively impacted received new wells, and the same compensation is likely to be available for the Potter Hill project.
Fuller said residents’ questions about their wells would be answered, but not until all the survey responses had been recorded.
“We have not responded to anyone on the wells,” she said. “We will be continuing to accept survey responses and we’ll be reaching out to respondents later this summer.”
The project website includes the well survey and a link for submitting comments and questions.