Dam Controversy on Johnson’s Pond Flows Into General Assembly
April 21, 2022
COVENTRY, R.I. — A long-running battle between a private dam owner and waterfront residents of Johnson’s Pond about water levels has spilled over into the General Assembly. Lawmakers this session are considering bills in each chamber that would give state and municipal officials greater oversight over the Flat River Reservoir Dam.
The dam controls the water level in the Flat River Reservoir — more commonly known as Johnson’s Pond to locals — and the flow of water throughout the southern branch of the Pawtuxet River. Residents have complained the owner of the dam, Soscia Holdings LLC, is keeping the pond’s water levels lower than normal, and ruining recreational water activities that are a hallmark of the warmer months.
“You have someone raising and lowering the water level, sending water down the Pawtuxet River, someone that has no knowledge of the detrimental effects,” Rep. George Nardone, R-Coventry, told the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee during a meeting earlier this month.
Nardone introduced H7853 earlier this year. The bill appends the Freshwater Wetlands Act to include large dammed bodies of water within its jurisdiction, and empowers the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to restore water levels in impacted wetlands to their historical norms.
A judge has already ruled against the Freshwater Wetlands Act applying to Johnson’s Pond, according to Nardone.
“He can drain that pond, he drains it just low enough where it can’t be sanctioned by DEM,” he said.
The dam at the reservoir dates back to the 1800s, when the Legislature granted the Quidnick Reservoir Co. franchise and flow rights. The General Assembly later made it a private chartered corporation in 1982, and sold its lease on the flow rights to local resident Bruce Soscia, president of Soscia Holdings, in 2020. The lease’s term ends in 2024.
Long described as a recreational gem for water-based activities, Johnson’s Pond occupies 950 acres in central Coventry, hosting some 600 residents along its 17 miles of shoreline. The pond is a popular site for catching largemouth bass and yellow perch, and was the site of annual fishing tournaments pre-pandemic.
The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing in early March on the Senate version of the bill (S2220). Sponsor Sen. Leo Raptakis, D-Coventry, said the status of the flow rights to the pond were a safety concern.
“Johnson’s Pond is too impactful a resource to commit decisions to be made in an emergency in the hands of laypeople,” Raptakis told committee members.
The owners have pushed back. Patrick Doughtery, an attorney retained by Soscia Holdings, accused legislative and municipal officials of usurping private property rights.
“You are attempting to take private rights through this bill and place them in the hands of the town of Coventry,” Doughtery testified. “The town of Coventry has no right whatsoever to manage the dam or manage or monitor the control gates.”
He added, “the bill would put control of the dam in the hands of untrained town employees.”
Marc Lemoi, president of the Johnson’s Pond Civic Association, described Soscia Holdings as “acting irresponsibly for monetary gain.”
“The private entity has a track record of draining the pond, causing problems for residents and the ecosystem on the pond,” Lemoi said.
He told the Senate committee that on Sept. 2, 2021 water was discharged from the dam ahead of a morning rainstorm at an alarming rate of 60 cubic feet per second.
“It’s never been the case to discharge water during rain events,” Lemoi said.
Doughtery called the actions described “a fiction.”
“My clients were prudent, well-advised and acted in the interest of people downstream as well as those upstream that would have been inundated by the flooding,” Doughtery said.
Soscia Holdings filed a lawsuit against DEM late last year, alleging the agency had intentionally interfered in its lease with the town. The litigation remains ongoing. DEM declined to comment.
In April 2021, DEM issued a letter to Soscia Holdings stating there is no risk to the dam that would require lowering the water level.
H7853 and S2220 were held for further study.
Colin Chelo’s YouTube video can be seen here.