092721 potterhill dam WS TM

The Potter Hill dam and fish ladder are shown on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. Residents are concerned over the proposal to remove the Potter Hill Dam. | Tim Martin, The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — The Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve and protect the watershed, is taking a public stance in opposition to the Town Council's plan for modifying the Potter Hill Mill Dam and calling for a different approach.

The council voted unanimously in October to support and pursue an option that would lower the dam slightly and include construction of a full-height, nature-like pool and riffle fishway. The approach would largely maintain upstream river levels at or near their current levels to sustain the impounded conditions upstream of the dam. Known as Alternative 3, the council-supported option is one of a few included in a preliminary technical memorandum, developed 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.

During a Town Council meeting on Monday evening, moments after the council gave its preliminary unofficial approval to changes to the town's contract with Fuss & O'Neill to reflect the council's support of Alternative 3, the council heard from Christopher J. Fox, executive director of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association.

The association, Fox said, opposes the council's decision to support Alternative 3 "because of the negative financial impact it will likely have to Westerly taxpayers and the likely negative impact it will have to the Pawcatuck River's eco-systems."

Alternative 3 will not provide flood risk reduction to areas upstream of the dam and will increase the risk of floods on Maxson Street, Fox said. The alternative will also not improve water quality or improve upstream wetlands, Fox said.

According to Fuss & O'Neill's conclusions, complete removal of the dam would best accomplish the goals of the NOAA grant, which was issued to improve fish passage, decrease flood risk, improve water quality and improve recreational uses of the river such as canoeing and kayaking. Complete removal of the dam is described in Alternatives 1 and 2 in the Fuss & O'Neill memorandum.

Alternative 3, Fox said, contradicts the comprehensive plans of both Westerly and Hopkinton as well as municipal and regional hazard mitigation plans. He predicted Alternative 3 would face a steep challenge to receive state and federal permits and questioned whether NOAA would pay the close to $6 million estimated cost. Alternative 3 would benefit only a narrow range of residents, Fox said.

Residents who live near the dam were vocal critics of the plan to completely remove the dam, saying it would reduce the value of their homes by causing the river's water level to drop significantly. Some said removing the dam would also ruin their drinking water wells.

Fox said the association planned to announce its position on the dam project in a letter he said would be widely "broadcast" on Tuesday. The council, at the behest of Councilor Brian McCuin, decided to ask Fuss & O'Neill to review the points made by Fox and to provide feedback to the council.

Councilor Philip Overton said he was concerned that "agencies funding the grant" were not invited to address the council. Ahern replied, saying that representatives of NOAA were present electronically for the council's meeting when it reviewed the alternatives with Fuss & O'Neill but councilors did not ask the representatives any questions.

Councilor Christopher Duhamel, who works as a civil engineer, said Fox had raised substantive questions. Duhamel also advocated moving ahead with the council's decision to have Fuss & O'Neill develop design documents for Alternative 3 and submitting them for review by state officials.

The Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association is designated as the watershed council for the Wood-Pawcatuck by the Rhode Island Rivers Council, giving it legal authority to advocate for the watershed. The rivers council was created by the state General Assembly in 1991 to coordinate efforts to improve the quality of the state’s rivers and their watersheds.

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