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Heavy rains swell the water volume at Potter Hill Dam in Ashaway in March 2010. Sun file photo

HOPKINTON — Members of the town's Potter Hill Dam Information Committee are calling on the council to step forward — including taking legal action if necessary — to delay removal of the dam until guarantees are in place to assure that neighboring wells do not run dry.

Committee Chairman James Duksta, a resident of Chase Hill Road, and members Carl Rosen and Marie Ward, both residents of River Road, pleaded with the Hopkinton Town Council and Town Solicitor Stephen Sypole on Tuesday evening to force cooperation from Westerly and prevent a full removal project that, as it currently stands, includes only word-of-mouth promises that those impacted would be aided in rebuilding and redrilling wells as necessary. The project will require at least 15 known wells to be rebuilt, with potentially as many as 50 wells in Hopkinton at risk of drying up as a result of the project, they indicated.

A survey went out to properties who may be impacted on Sept. 15, and council members said residents were notified by the town’s reverse-call alert system. The surveys are due to be returned by Sept. 27, with results expected on Oct. 1.

Ward urged action from the council, saying that dragging out any discussions put residents at risk of losing their drinking water, possibly for an extended period of time, before well issues are resolved.

“This is our drinking water. Forget property values and everything else; this is our drinking water that we are talking about,” Ward said. “Why can’t the town go to Westerly and say ‘Hey, this is a problem?’ The council is supposed to represent the people.”

Sypole encouraged residents to seek a lawyer on their behalf. He explained that, due to issues of individual property rights, the town cannot represent residents in matters regarding their private property.

Plans to remove the failing Potter Hill Dam, which was built in the 1780s and rebuilt in the early 1900s, first came into the public eye at the start of the year.

The Town of Westerly, which has receivership of the defunct Potter Hill Mill and would be more severely impacted by flooding should the dam fail, has worked in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Protection in developing a proposal for full dam removal. The project is being funded by multiple grants.

The effort is considered a final step in restoring the natural flow of the Pawcatuck River, which was designated as a “Wild and Scenic River” by the National Park Service. Four other dams along the watershed have already been removed.

In response to concerns from residents that they were not properly informed of the project or given an opportunity to speak, the town established the Potter Hill Dam Information Committee to research the impact and gather data. The committee presented its findings over the summer, and Duksta said Tuesday that the committee members feel that major concerns are not being heard. He said requests to meet with engineers from Fuss & O’Neill have been ignored despite several requests after a scheduled meeting was canceled at the last minute.

He added that there are many options on how to address the issues but said it appears Westerly officials have been unmoved and continue to push forward with a project that could have a negative impact on a number of Hopkinton residents.

“We have asked for a meeting with the engineers and, although it was scheduled, that meeting did not happen,” Duksta said. “There are many options to move forward, even today, and how they narrowed it down to this single option is a concern.”

Questions sent to engineers by several residents and members of the committee during a June informational meeting also went unanswered, committee members said.

Duksta, Rosen and Ward received support from the council, including members Sharon Davis and Scott Bill Hirst, with each pledging to fight against the project. Both took a different approach, however, as Davis insisted the council continue to reach out and keep an open line of communication with organizations involved in the project, while Hirst urged the council to take more direct action to force further discussion.

Hirst expressed anger toward the lack of inclusion for Hopkinton, which shares the river as a border with Westerly. He said the project was going to have negative impacts on the environment, quality of life, property values and more.

“This is definitely going to impact property values, but that type of well situation we are dealing with is very serious,” he said. “It’s ridiculous the lack of respect for the Town of Hopkinton shown here.”

Davis told the committee members present that she had been in contact with Susan Patton, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and was assured that the project would be required to address impacted wells at no cost to the well-owners. When asked about where the funding would come from, however, Davis said that Patton indicated a lack of funding for addressing well issues could be considered detrimental to the project and promised she would help to find sources to secure the funding.

During the June informational meeting, Patton suggested wetlands were unlikely to be negatively affected by removal of the dam, saying they are resilient and often adapt to seasonal and other changes to surface water and groundwater levels. The array of wildlife that currently lives in and around the river will continue to thrive, she said.

The promises are of little consolation to the committee members, however, and Duksta and Rosen requested that money be allocated in advance of the project starting, with proper contingencies to address any unknown impact to wells that the dam removal may have. Rosen said he understands it could be expensive, adding that when the cost of well replacement is considered, it would potentially be more cost efficient to employ an alternative option to full removal.

“Even with 50 wells, at $20,000 per well that’s $1 million,” he said. “If we were able to get that money for better design criteria instead, it would be a win-win for everybody.”

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