WESTERLY — The Town Council is supporting a proposal to slightly lower the dam that crosses the Pawcatuck River at the Potter Hill Mill rather than the total removal recommended by an environmental engineering firm hired under a river restoration grant.
The council voted 7-0 Monday to support "Alternative 3," as it is described in environmental engineering firm Fuss & O'Neill's preliminary report. Alternative 3 would lower the dam but is not expected to drastically lower the water level of the river or cause the river to narrow significantly.
Alternative 2, which was ranked as the top option by Fuss & O'Neill, calls for complete removal of the dam and creation of a riffle-pool channel. Opponents of the plan, including people who live along the river in the area of the dam, are critical of Alternative 2, saying it would lower the water level, narrow the river and ruin drinking water wells.
Fuss & O'Neill said Alternative 2 would most closely accomplish the goals of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant that funded the firm's study. The grant is focused on improving migratory fish passage in the river, restoring the river to its pre-dam condition, and mitigating flood hazards.
Alternative 3 has an estimated price tag of $5.7 million and Alternative 2 has an estimated price tag of $2.7 million. On Monday the council also voted to direct Town Attorney William Conley Jr. to renegotiate the town's contract with Fuss & O'Neill. According to Town Council President Sharon Ahern, the contract was never reviewed by Conley despite a provision in the Town Charter which calls for the town attorney to review contracts. A draft version of the renegotiated contract will be reviewed by the council before it is signed, Ahern said.
Fuss & O'Neill and former Town Manager J. Mark Rooney signed an amended contract for the second year of the grant in August. The contract calls for the firm to develop a project manual with designs for the dam project, provide construction bidding and contracting assistance, and oversee construction.
The council voted after hearing from several residents as well as from representatives of environmental agencies and organizations.
David Prescott of Save the Bay called for complete removal of the dam, saying it would make the area more resilient to climate change and would make it easier for fish to get through. He also said wetlands would quickly reconstitute themselves if the river was returned to its natural state.
Suzanne Paton, a senior biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wild Life Agency, said improving conditions for fish would benefit a larger eco-system, including the ocean, where small fish born in the river serve as part of the food chain. She asked the council to hold off on making a decision until additional data was available and to "consider a true partial removal, something that does a better job of striking a balance."
Hopkinton Town Council Vice President Sharon Davis spoke in favor of Alternative 3, saying it would help fish passage and "most importantly maintain upstream water levels at or near current levels and protect wells."
Nick Stahl, president of the Westerly Land Trust board, said his board wanted additional information before it would make a recommendation or issue an opinion. The land trust owns 9 miles of riverfront property and has questions about the effect the dam projects would have on erosion and sediment release, he said.
State Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, D-Hopkinton, thanked the council for listening to residents of Westerly and Hopkinton and said Alternative 3 "is probably the best approach" because it would less of an effect on water levels and the width of the river. State Sen. Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly, previously urged the council to deliberate carefully, saying many constituents had raised concerns with him.
Ahern noted that those who support complete removal say it would return the river to its original state, but, she noted, a dam has been in place at the mill site for hundreds of years.
"The project should be the best project in all of our opinions with input from stakeholders, not so much the funding agencies, but the people who live along the river," Ahern said.