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Environmental groups wanted the removal of a dam in R.I. They met resistance.

Environmental groups wanted the removal of a dam in R.I. They met resistance.

Collapsing equipment on the site of the Potter Hill dam and mill on the Westerly-Hopkinton border. Federal officials and environmental groups wanted to get rid of the dam, which one powered the mill, but locals balked and now the project is stalled.

They agree on one thing. The Pawcatuck River would be significantly affected if the dam was taken down.

It is a missed opportunity. Tim Mooney, spokesperson for the Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island, stated that it was a big miss.

Sharon Ahern, president of Westerly Town Council, said that this is not the case. It is a pause that allows us to think about the best way forward.

Ahern said that it was a missed chance if you’re only interested in greatly increasing fish passage.

Ahern also disagrees with the idea of the project being beneficial as it would restore the river to its natural state.

Ahern stated that this is the natural state of the animal. We are not going to go back in time to the days when dinosaurs lived and say, Geez! This is the natural state.

The dam has been there for longer than the United States of America. It began as a gristmill in the mid-1700s and has evolved to become a textile plant for wool and cashmere over the years. It has been abandoned and is now falling into the river. A court-appointed special master now has control of the property.

Collapsing equipment at the Potter Hill dam and Mill on the Westerly/Hopkinton border. Federal officials and environmental groups tried to get rid the dam that powered the mill, but locals refused and the project is now stalled.Courtesy NOAA

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration granted Westerly a grant in 2020 with support from Nature Conservancy and other partners. This grant was to help them explore the possibility of removing it. It would have cost approximately $1.7 million. Five other dams on Pawcatuck that flow from the Atlantic Ocean to the inland headwaters have been either removed or repaired to allow fisherman to move more freely.

Potter Hill dam is the last barrier to the Pawcatuck’s main stem. Supporters of removal stated that Monday’s vote to do nothing is even more discourageing.

A dammed river is similar to a person with a bad heart condition. The doctor has removed five blood clots and left only one, according to Jim Turek, a restoration specialist at NOAA. It can be removed, and it can be restored to the person’s health. It is the same as with the Pawcatuck.

Although dam removals are not uncommon, New England and Rhode Island are behind other areas of the country in getting rid these remnants of an industrial past.

Turek stated that this project would benefit the people of the area by restoring floodplains, wetlands, and help them to get around. It would also help river herring and other migratory fish to get from the ocean to freshwater upstream. Those fish play an important part in the ecosystem. Threats to their population could have devastating consequences for the aquatic food web.

Although the dam now has a fish ladder, it doesn’t work as well as a natural flowing river.

The Potter Hill dam and the old mill at the Westerly-Hopkinton frontier. Federal officials and environmental groups tried to get rid the dam that powered the mill, but locals refused and the project is now stalled.Courtesy NOAA

The administration of Westerlys was initially supportive of the plan to remove the town. At public hearings, opposition began to grow. Members of the council claimed that they learned more about the project after the Westerly manager left his position. They were confused. The plan was rejected by neighbors who took reporters and council members on pontoon boat tours to demonstrate their concerns.

The river that led to the dam would narrowen if the dam was removed. Residents were concerned that the once beautiful areas for paddling a kayak or driving a pontoon will become a mire of stinkymud.

They also raised concerns over shallow wells drying up.

Peter Ogle, a Westerly resident who voted against the dam removal, stated that everyone would like better access for the river’s migratory fish. There are many ways to improve fish access without affecting the local community, their wells, and their boating access to river.

Environmental groups claim that these concerns are exaggerated or completely unfounded. Yes, the river would be smaller if the dam were removed, but it would not become desolate, mud flats. They would become a natural buffer that is flood-resistant and lush. No, property values will not fall: removing dams improves property values. Anybody whose wells are affected would receive government assistance to drill deeper ones. The dam itself is the real danger, not its removal.

Recent public meetings saw wildlife experts gnawing their teeth as opponents claimed that the project would harm nature. Chris Fox, executive director of Wood Pawcatuck Watershed Association, stated that this was because they were hearing from wildlife experts.

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Fox said that wildlife would like you to restore the river in its original state. Fox said that this is what they live in and not the manmade river created a few hundred year ago.

Another contentious topic is the risk of dam failure: While the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management considers the dam low-risk, it doesn’t mean it is safe, supporters of its removal claim.

Turek, an official at NOAA, stated that the raceway will eventually fail. It’s leaking badly right now, and it needs to be assessed.

The Town Council supported a different proposal for removal: replacing it by a system that is smaller and more gradual. This would allow fishes to move more freely. (But not enough. It could make migratory fish more vulnerable to predators. This option would not dramatically alter the water levels downstream.

However, the town also rejected this option. Without NOAA and other partners support, they might not be able to obtain permits. Even more, they might not be able to obtain the money for this more costly option if the project doesn’t actually benefit fish species and flood resilience.

Ahern, the Town Council president says it is not the end of Potter Hill’s story. They are just going back to the well and trying to figure out the next steps, including rebuilding the old mill. However, it won’t mean the dam will be removed.

Ahern said that many of the residents have become physically sick from this.


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @bamaral44.

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