standing Letters

I still have some questions about the situation of the Potter Hill Dam.

Has this dam or its predecessors really been there for 300 years? If so, hasn’t a new ecosystem evolved above and below it?

Although this dam was apparently built in association with a mill, many dams have been built for the purpose of flood control. What’s the basis for saying the removal of this one will aid flood mitigation? In my understanding wild rivers accept drought and flooding as a natural cycle — but there is nothing natural about the downstream communities that are subject to a flooding Pawcatuck River, as we witnessed a few years ago in Westerly along Canal Street. There is no fixed depth in the “natural state” of a wild river, even if it is a “low-energy” one.

A wild river is not necessarily a scenic river. In my experience with the first Wild and Scenic River, the Buffalo River in Arkansas, quite the opposite is true: at low water the banks are a barren waste of snags and rubble; at flood time all this is swept downstream. If there is a 300-year build-up of silt behind the Potter Hill Dam, will it end up in Little Narragansett Bay after the first freshet?

The Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association’s focus has long included fish, and I agree that the removal of all dams — mill dams, flood dams, beaver dams — may contribute to the restoration of an anadromous fishery — if there ever truly was one, which I believe was disputed in the case of Westerly’s emblematic salmon by one of the scientists involved in studying the river a few years back.

Will the experience for non-motorized recreation be enhanced? My experience paddling through Shannock has not been enhanced by dam removal: the carry is just as long and the water levels are less certain. Bradford is worse, where a short carry has been obliterated. Of course, this is my subjective experience. And it has to do with recreation, not preservation or conservation or economics.

As far as scenery goes, that too is subjective. But the landscape — and the riverscape — belongs to all of us, not just those who live at the river’s edge. What are the most scenic spots between Bradford and White Rock? The backwater at the Route 3 bridge? The Potter Hill Dam itself?

The “vast majority” of the people living in the watershed may or may not benefit from the removal of the Potter Hill Dam, but I should think the vast majority of Westerly residents — in fact the entire tax-paying population — will “benefit” negatively if they have to pay for rebuilding downtown after the next great storm. I really wonder if returning to the Rousseau-like ideal of a dam-free river meets the needs of the civilization that borders it.

This controversy isn’t about a handful of landowners and their personal playground, and it’s a disservice to allege that it’s as simple as that.

Bob Madison


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