WESTERLY — The Town Council is expected to select an option for dealing with the dam that crosses the Pawcatuck River at the Potter Hill Mill on Monday.
The dam that once harnessed the energy of the river to run the mill was rated as being in poor condition by Fuss & O'Neill, an environmental engineering firm hired under a under a three-year grant secured by the town from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The grant's primary focus is improving fish passage along the river where several other impediments have been removed since 2005.
The river is described in a preliminary report by Fuss & O'Neill as "a regionally significant river system for diadromous fisheries, including Atlantic salmon and American shad, and may also have historically supported a significant migratory brook trout population." Other migratory fish known to use this system, according to the report, include alewife, blueback herring, rainbow smelt, and sea-run brown trout, as well as the American eel.
The grant application calls for removal of the dam but members of the council, after hearing from residents who live on the river in both Westerly and Hopkinton, have discussed a less-intensive approach that would lower the dam and maintain the river's depth and width. The residents have complained that complete removal of the dam would devalue their property by transforming their riverfront views into mudflats and vegetation.
Several of the residents are also concerned that compete removal of the dam would cause their shallow-point drinking water wells to fail. Fuss & O'Neill staff have acknowledged the potential effect on the dams and have said funds from future years of the grant could be used to replace the affected wells prior to the dam being removed.
Members of the council last week signaled they were leaning toward "Alternative 3," developed by Fuss & O'Neill, that would lower the dam. The engineering firm said complete removal would best accomplish the goals of the grant, but the firm's representatives also said they were open to other approaches based on input from the council and residents.
"Alternative 3 lowers the dam but does not disturb the water level, so people who are concerned that there is only one go-forward, there is not. There is also a do-nothing," said council President Sharon Ahern.
The third alternative involves creation of a full-height, nature-like pool and riffle fishway, maintaining upstream river levels at or near their current levels to sustain the impounded conditions upstream of the dam, and would not affect residential wells, according to a preliminary report from Fuss & O'Neill.
Alternative 3 would also make the dam area passable for paddle sports. Kayakers and canoeists must now portage their watercrafts to avoid the dangerous dam area.
Representatives of Fuss & O'Neill have pointed to the dam's failing sluice ways as a safety hazard that could lead to failure of the dam that could cause flooding and damage to wells. While the sluice ways and dam could be repaired, Fuss & O'Neill have noted that there are currently no funds available to conduct routine maintenance.
The dam and associated mill property are the subject of a Superior Court receivership case. A court-appointed special master is looking for ways to address the public safety problems posed by the deteriorating mill and has discussed eventual use of the property for public recreation.
The council is scheduled to meet Monday at 5:30 p.m. at Town Hall.