CRMC Approves Plan to Restore Kickemuit Reservoir to Tidal Habitat via Dam Removal
September 29, 2022
PROVIDENCE – A dam removal project by the Bristol County Water Authority that would restore the Kickemuit Reservoir back to a tidal estuarine habitat received conditional approval from the Coastal Resources Management Council this week.
Under the approved application, the water authority will remove the lower dam structure entirely and dredge the original path of the river, all in an effort to restore the wetlands to their pre-developed state. Plans to remove the upper dam await approval from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management
The reservoir’s lower dam has significantly deteriorated since 2006, and the BCWA reports it is periodically breached by saltwater from further downstream and is functionally obsolete.
The final application was approved by CRMC, with two additional stipulations added during the meeting. The agency’s council mandated that BCWA must conduct regular well testing on abutting homes close to the reservoir and provide a feasibility study on the impacts to homes on Serpentine Road, on the river’s west bank.
At Tuesday’s meeting, council member Donald Gomez said he would not vote for the application without some kind of protection for nearby homeowners. “Saltwater intrusion is a problem, and I would like to see well testing be a stipulation and done periodically. If the data shows intrusion, then it’s up to Bristol County Water Authority to take care of it.”
Warren resident Robert Botelho, who said he represented residents along Serpentine Road, warned council members the removal of the freshwater reservoir might impact fire suppression, increase local flooding, and contaminate all private wells along Serpentine Road.
“The water well issue and tactical risk assessments have not been addressed,” said Botelho.
Attorney for the water authority Joe Keough dismissed Botelho’s complaints. “I didn’t hear any comments or excerpt testimony refusing any evidence by the Bristol County Water Authority,” said Keough.
He continued. “Frankly, [Botelho’s opinions] are not evidence.”
Botelho also complained that residents to the reservoir were not adequately notified of the project application, alleging only three residents along Serpentine Road had received notice from the agency.
It’s not the first time CRMC has come under fire for its public notice procedures. Last November, at a public comment meeting for the legislative commission studying reforming CRMC, town officials and state residents criticized the agency’s process for notifying stakeholders about new aquaculture projects.
The Kickemuit River is a 7.9-mile waterway sourced from wetlands in Rehoboth, Mass. The river flows through Swansea, Mass., and into the Warren Reservoir, and from there across the state line southeast into Mount Hope Bay.
The original dams were constructed in 1883 to provide a public drinking water supply for Warren and Bristol, an act which fragmented the watershed. The upper dam was constructed in 1961, because saltwater was intruding into the original water supply.
The BCWA discontinued using the reservoir as a drinking water supply in 2011, and its treatment plant was decommissioned in 2019. The problem has been sea level rise: Narragansett Bay has risen 15 inches since the original dam was constructed on the Kickemuit River.
The dams have been responsible for degrading the wetlands that make up the river, resulting in low oxygen levels and deteriorating water quality habitats for fish and other aquatic life. As with other water bodies across Rhode Island, the river has also been the site of summer algae blooms.
In a staff report, the CRMC agreed with the water authority, noting the lower dam is not already counted as a flood barrier on Federal Emergency Management Agency flood insurance maps. CRMC staff was also satisfied with commitments from the BCWA to monitor the private wells.
The BCWA’s worst case models suggest only a small section of Serpentine Road would flood an additional two inches in cases of storm surge combined with a 10-year rain event. A 52-acre wetlands complex upstream should convert to salt marsh after both dams are removed, and provide continued buffers for storm surges and decrease overall flooding.
The BCWA agreed to both stipulations, acknowledging with regard to the water testing that DEM had spotty records showing only two wells along Serpentine Road. Ninety days prior to the start of construction, the water authority will contact residents to arrange to have their water tested and analyzed by a third-party laboratory.
Council members erred on the side of caution, and asked testing be conducted at BCWA’s expense into the future after construction is completed in a time frame to be worked out in the council’s written decision.
“I think we owe the objector some protection,” said council member Jerry Sahagian. “Maybe the well testing with [a CRMC environmental scientist] overseeing the monitoring of that is the balance we need. I’d hate to see another of these in court, especially when the applicant has clearly met the burden of the Redbook [CRMC regulations].”