Public Health & Recreation

New Options for Westerly’s Potter Hill Dam Drum Up Old Concerns

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The Potter Hill Dam in Westerly, R.I., was originally built in the 1780s and is failing. (Cynthia Drummond)

WESTERLY, R.I. — Melissa Davy pulled a large binder out, peppered with multi-colored tabs and sticky notes. It contained survey information, project proposals, and diagrams.

“This is binder one of many,” she said.

The subject of all the paperwork and binders — Potter Hill Dam — has been one of her big projects since she started as assistant town manager about a year ago.

Both the dam and mill have fallen into disrepair since the mill stopped operating in the 1950s. In early 2022, the Town Council voted to demolish the mill to make way for a park, but didn’t take any action on the fate of the dam itself.

The possibility of removing the dam or lowering it has been hotly debated in town and in nearby Hopkinton, which borders the site.

Lowering or removing the dam would allow the passage of more fish upstream and take out the last obstruction to their migration on the wild and scenic Pawcatuck River.

But abutters, mostly on the Hopkinton side, fear how any action on the dam may impact the river and their properties upstream.

More recently, the town administrator and a mostly new Town Council — six of the members who voted not to remove the dam hit their term limits — decided, “We need to get the band back together,” Davy said.

This time around, Davy said the town is trying to offer a wider array of solutions and bring in more voices so, if anything is done to the dam, it’s a solution that fixes the most problems and addresses critics’ concerns.

Although ultimately it will be up to the Town Council to vote on any potential action, Hopkinton’s input is being considered.

“We want to make sure we’re looking at all the facets,” Davy said.

Problems with Potter’s Mill

Walking around Potter Hill Mill, it’s easy to see why the property is a hazard. A fire destroyed most of the building in the 1970s; it had closed two decades earlier. A large pile of debris sits outside the granite shell of the mill that would be dangerous to enter, Davy told ecoRI News on a fall walk through the property.

She pointed out large holes in the ground and hanging pieces of gnarled metal from the textile equipment, where fragments of cloth are still caught in parts of the rusted-out machines.

The locked chainl-ink fence around the property is warning enough.

The Potter Hill Mill, built of Westerly granite in the 1840s, is collapsing into the Pawcatuck River. (Cynthia Drummond)

The issues with the dam that once powered the mill are harder to notice because they are underwater, though some of the problems are easier heard than seen.

Walking through the property, even hundreds of feet from the river, there is the sound of water running below the building in the broken gates of the dam in places it shouldn’t be.

A 2022 inspection found the dam is in poor condition. Vegetation is overgrown throughout the structure, and the concrete is deteriorating and cracked in several places.

The cost of repairing the dam is estimated to be between about $2.75 million and $8.75 million.

The poor condition is a concern because it could lead to dam failure. The dam is classified as a “low hazard,” by the state Department of Environmental Management, which means that it likely would not result in a loss of life or major economic damage should it break, although the hazard assessment could be out of date.

Dams across the state are experiencing something known as “hazard creep,” which happens when the potential damage a dam could cause if it malfunctioned or failed increases because of increased development downstream. The state’s dam safety program is largely underfunded and understaffed, ecoRI News previously reported, and so hasn’t been able to undergo a recent audit of all the state’s dams to confirm or reclassify their current hazard level.

In addition to improving the safety of the dam, the town of Westerly set out to increase its climate resiliency through dam modification or removal, in an effort to restore wetlands around the river which can help the land act as a sponge in case of heavy precipitation and storm surge.

For the fish

On top of the potential problems for people, regardless of its condition, the dam impedes some fish from moving upstream.

There’s a coalition of several organizations, including DEM, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and The Nature Conservancy, which have been involved in considering possible solutions to improve fish passage.

James Turek, a restoration ecologist at the NOAA Restoration Center, has worked on Pawcatuck River restoration for about 20 years, and specifically on the issues at Potter Hill Dam since 2019.

He believes the dam’s removal or modification through the installation of a dam-wide, nature-like fishway would make a massive, positive impact on the surrounding environment.

Turek said the dam impedes the passage of American shad, which is “less in number” than its cousin the herring, but “greater in value and importance.”

In the Connecticut and Rhode Island area, anglers once caught shad in abundance, leading local communities to host shad festivals and bakes. The construction of dams on the Pawcatuck and Connecticut rivers obstructed the fish and severely reduced the population, Turek said.

Brook trout and American eel are also important creatures that can’t make their way up the river because of the dams.

There was a fishway installed on the dam in the 1970s, but Turek said it functions better as a net for DEM to inspect what’s in the river than to allow fish to migrate and spawn upriver.

“People didn’t understand what the fish needed, so they built a crappy fishway,” he said. “The fishway is terrible.”

“The concrete fish ladder alongside the river was constructed in the early 1970s and with limited efficiency passes river herring, American shad, trout and other resident freshwater fish,” according to DEM spokesperson Evan LaCross.

The inspection report from 2022 for the dam also noted “joint sealant deterioration, scour, and hairline cracks throughout the fish ladder.”

“Generally, dam removals can potentially benefit some species and improve water quality, but may also impact other species or upstream wetlands,” LaCross wrote in an email to ecoRI News. “Fish monitoring has continued on the Pawcatuck River and DEM’s Division of Fish and Wildlife has partnered with USFWS to install video monitoring of returning migratory fish on the lower sections of river.”

‘Varying degrees of change’

Fuss & O’Neill, the engineering firm working with the town of Westerly on the dam, has offered eight different options with “varying degrees of change,” Davy said. The Town Council will pick three of those options, likely sometime later this month, to study further.

The options involve lowering the water level of the head pond, formed above the dam, by anywhere from 6.8 feet to 6 inches.

All the options have been presented at meetings both in Westerly and Hopkinton. Although Westerly owns the dam and ultimately has the legal authority to make changes, Hopkinton officials and residents have spoken up about their opinions.

The Hopkinton Town Council passed a resolution in December asking the Westerly Town Council to “decline to pursue any options for the dam that could result in lower water levels.”

Hopkinton Town Council member Sharon Davis said she has listened to the residents in her town who are concerned about how dropping the water level will impact their wells and their own recreation areas on the pond.

Scott Bill Hirst, who grew up in Ashaway near the dam, and currently sits on the council as vice president, agreed.

Both said they were glad the project would replace any impacted wells but still felt a lower head pond was a big issue for their constituents, who currently use boats in the area upstream. His worry focuses in on how that may affect people’s property values.

Hirst understands the concerns about the fish, as a former Conservation Commission member, but said he fears changing the dam and head pond could impact other wildlife upstream that have become part of the local environment since the dam was installed.

“If they do take the dam down, I want the water level to stay essentially the same,” he said.

Carl Rosen, a resident who lives on the pond, said his well and property will be impacted by a water level drop.

But beyond the personal impact of the changes, Rosen said he feels frustrated about what could happen to the current ecosystem if the dam is modified.

“If I go out to the wetlands and I cut down a tree or I try and clear something, the DEM is going to be banging on my head and my door and fining me, yet they’re proposing dropping the water level three and a half feet,” he said.

“We would be reasonably happy with a six-inch drop,” he said, although there are some in the community he has spoken to who would like to see no drop. “I’m not going to worry about six inches.”

NOAA’s Turke recognized that removing or lowering the dam could impact property owners that live above it, both by lowering the head pond and possibly draining shallow private wells.

The impact on the water level diminishes the father away the river gets from the dam itself, he explained, adding that dropping the pond a few feet would be “imperceptible” to observers not using tools to measure the difference.

Other criticisms, however, like that the wetlands will be destroyed if the project goes forward or that the dam wouldn’t be a safety issue if it failed, Turek does not agree with.

“There’s some people that just don’t want to have change in their lives,” he said.

He said he wants “to do a project that will benefit a lot of people.”

“There’s no viable ‘Don’t do anything’ option,” he said. “You can’t just let the thing sit forever.”

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  1. Just do it. Get rid of old hazardous ecosystem destroying dams. the folks in Hopkinton will figure out shortly after that the impacts are minimal

  2. The upstream wetlands, and wildlife that rely on them, are adapted to fluctuating water levels. Currently, the dam causes relatively permanent water levels in these upstream wetlands. Removal of the dam will restore the natural, fluctuating water levels characteristic of riverine wetland ecosystems. Healthy riverine ecosystems play an important role in water quality, biodiversity and flood abatement. State and federal wetland regulations are in place to prevent the loss of wetland area and FUNCTION. It is simply false to claim that wetlands will be damaged, or that this project is environmentally irresponsible in any way.

  3. The taxpayers of the Town of Westerly are facing a $50 million expansion and upgrade of the sewage treatment plant (partly because previous town councils have refused to implement Development Impact Fees). The lowest cost alternation lowers the water to its natural free flow, consistent with the River being designated a National Wild and Scenic River by the National Park Service. It is also like to receive more than $1 million in federal grants. A fishway that does not lower the water below its current level is unlikely to receive any grants. There are only three houses on the Hopkinton side of the river between the dam and the Route 3 bridge. Any wells adversely affected will be replaced with better wells at no cost to the owners.

  4. Let’s put aside the fact that the dam is a flood and safety hazard for the moment.

    It’s interesting to me that there appears to be very limited discussion or reporting regarding the benefits of complete dam removal for diadromous fishes (primarily alewife, blueback, American shad and American eel) on a population level. It is my understanding that the Wood-Pawcatuck River Watershed’s diadromous fish populations return and reproduce at very low levels compared the watershed’s potential. As a matter of fact , American shad are nearly extirpated from the Watershed (they may have been totally extirpated at one point already). For those of you that don’t know what extirpated means, it means they’ve disappeared from the watershed.

    The habitat is there, but the dam poses two problems. First it serves as a barrier to migration which not only impedes movement of anadromous fishes upstream to spawn, but it also slows their progress. So much so that thousands maybe tens of thousands are lost due to predation especially by the 75 to 100 commorants that congregate on this location daily during the spring alewife, blueback, and American shad spawning runs. It’s my understanding that the second problem with the dam is that the impoundment the dam creates is not prefered habitat for spawning alewives, bluebacks, or American shad. In light of this, removal of the dam would not only increase passage to all upstream spawning habitat, it would also increase the amount of prefered habitat available to the fish that do return.

    I believe that we’ve become complacent. Each year there is an anadromous fish run and many get excited to see these magnificent creatures return to their natal streams. The problem is, that these spawning runs have been greatly diminished over much of the Atlantic Coast in the last 50 years and we’ve developed what biologist Daniel Pauly coined as a “shifting baseline syndrome” where we don’t miss what we can’t remember. This is the death knell for anadromous fishes. These fish have been incredibly diminished in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and the whole Atlantic Coast. Atlantic salmon are gone except for remnant populations in Maine and the Canadian Maritimes Provinces. Atlantic sturgeon can best be considered a remnant population diminished over much of it’s range. American shad are basically gone from the Pawcatuck watershed. Alewife and blueback numbers have been greatly reduced region wide . So much so that there has been a moratorium on taking alewife and blueback for many years. In all truth there should probably be a region wide moratorium on taking American shad as well, as their numbers have diminished greatly region wide since the mid 1980s. All of these fishes serve important ecological roles, some as filter feeders, and most as forage for larger predatory fishes such as striped bass, cod. bluefish, tuna, and others. Many of these predatory fish are also at reduced numbers currently. Could there be a relationship? Absolutely. Lets remember, most of these dams were built to harness the power of water for the operation of mills and industry. When they become derelict it’s time for removal in my opinion.

    Please don’t get me wrong, I totally understand that those that live on the impoundment above the dam have concerns about their property values and recreational oppurtunities. Theyve made there concerns very clear and I don’t have a problem with that. If I lived there, I would probably feel differently myself. That being said lets remember that the recreational oppurtunities they’re worried about are theirs alone. I don’t believe there is public access for trailered boats anywhere in that segment or impoundment.

    My main reason for writing this opinion is that these catadromous fishes don’t have a voice. They can’t speak up on their own behalf. Ultimately it would be great to see more in print regarding the detailed ecological aspects of total dam removal. I believe NOAA and or other federal ecological resource management agencies have covered all this in written documents, I just haven’t seen or heard much detail regarding anadromous fish during the open forum which I attended or the current article.

    Thank you. I appreciate the oppurtunity to comment.

  5. Climate change is the best explanation for the excessive amount of flooding currently underway today and this past week. We have had over 2″ of rain since last night on top of the existing flooding. Taking down this last dam will be a major improvement to property owners use and safe enjoyment at or near the river and for those downstream. Go visit out there today if you need convincing. Removal will be financially beneficial, particularly in Westerly which now owns the dam as outside funding is only available for logical dam removal and not any for illogical dam repair. As one of the thousands of kayak and canoe users of the river, I will greatly appreciate the dam removal. This is good for fish, the wild and scenic river designation expectations, and return to a natural river environment.

  6. So true Harvey. Do you ever wonder whether it’s all just the same like minded people who read these articles and/or comments?

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