The writing’s been on the South Natick Dam spillway (aka, waterfall) for more than a year that the iconic Charles River structure will likely be removed. The Charles River Dam Advisory Committee, during its meeting on July 19, did nothing to alter that likely outcome.
While the group—consisting of residents, town employees, and town board/committee reps—did not take a formal vote, members took part in a round of reflections and deliberation during which they all pretty much said which way they lean on this issue. All five town employees on the committee indicated they favor removal. All but two members of the committee who were present said they prefer removal of the spillway over repair of the 1934 dam, which the town hasn’t exactly taken a proactive approach to maintaining. Removal is estimated by the town to cost at least $1M less than repair, which would also include significant ongoing costs.
(Disclosure: We are river neighbors. In fact, we took a walk to the dam on Sunday night, and immediately experienced some of the issues raised during the dam advisory process. It was a full house at the park, with all the benches occupied by people cooling off at the end of a wickedly hot day. We saw someone struggling to push a person in a wheelchair up a steep incline to a vehicle. We ran across a friend who lives in a neighboring town and said “I don’t know if we’d come down here if it was just a plain river.”)
The Advisory Committee has seemingly satisfied members and the general public over a dozen meetings with its approach to civil discourse on this touchy topic. It is set to begin formally developing its recommendation to the Select Board at the committee’s July 26 meeting.
This past week’s meeting started with about 45 minutes of brief public comments, some from residents, including those backing the increasingly vocal Save Natick Dam group. At least half a dozen people made pitches on behalf of conservation groups like the Charles River Watershed Association and Mass Audubon Society that have rallied around this opportunity to rid the state of another dam. There is much momentum behind dam removal for liability, safety, ecological, and as in the case of Natick, respecting the wishes of Native Americans. The state’s Division of Ecological Restoration has removed more than 40 dams since 2005 (there are more than 3,000 dams across Massachusetts).
Those in favor of keeping the spillway argue that not all dams are created equal. They contend that removing the spillway will mess with an ecosystem that has evolved over decades, that unknowns remain about the sediment at the dam, and that it’s hard to put a price on what the structure means to those who visit it. People also expressed concern about projections from an engineering consulting firm that water levels above the dam could drop significantly, likely making it impossible to kayak or canoe in the area during parts of the year. One notable comment came from a rep for a commercial property at 22 Pleasant St., that claims certain riparian rights and touted the hydroelectric capabilities of the site; town officials have plans to contact that property owner.
Perhaps the most interesting public comments came from people who have lived or do live near the river and have come to accept that ditching the spillway might be the best option. Zev Hoover, who grew up along the river above the stream, said “Reflexively, I was in support of saving it too initially, but the dam is not like an ancient, historical part of the community. The river is, and we should be doing the right thing for the health of the river.”
Aileen Zogby described, as a neighbor, how meaningful the river is to her family. While she doesn’t love the choices, she said “my family ultimately supports the choice that is overall the most prudent and the most beneficial for the macro environment, not just the option that is best for the humans who love the aesthetics of this support. Therefore I support removal based on the judgment and recommendation of so many various experts…”
Like others who support the spillway removal, Zogby says it’s essential that any such decision be paired with a plan to make the surrounding park beautiful, accessible, and culturally respectful. Given that there’s no plan for how to approach or pay for this, some fear a spillway removal could leave the town with an eyesore more akin to the nearby basketball courts on Pleasant Street than to some of the more successful park renovations in town in recent years. A landscape design firm did present ideas for park development at an earlier Advisory Committee meeting, and there are growing opportunities to snag grants for dam removal projects.
Board reflects, deliberates
During the reflection and deliberation portion of the meeting Committee members shared their thoughts, including opinions that have evolved during the course of past meetings and research conducted along the way. Martin Kessel, representing Precinct 10 in South Natick, stated that he’d been leaning toward voting for spillway removal to allow for a more natural river. But an engineering report from the previous meeting that suggested removing the spillway would dramatically lower water levels above where the dam now resides changed his mind. “In my mind, if we keep the dam, we’re not going to make the environment any worse (we’re not going to make it any better, but we’re not going to make it worse). But if we remove the spillway, we’re going to devastate the recreational potential, at least as far as boating…,” he said.
Terri Evans, representing the Natick Planning Board, advocated for removing the spillway, citing “attention to the environmental impact of the direction this project takes as critical.” The asterisk on her support for this action, or even if the town decides to repair the dam, is that a plan must be put in place to secure funding to landscape the surrounding parkland to ensure community access and enjoyment.
As Committee member Mike Balcom stated, there will be more opportunities for the public to weigh in on a decision before anything is finalized. While the Committee has put in a lot of work, Balcom said he hopes the recommendation is just a starting point. “Now the town can look at something concrete,” he said.
The Select Board will have its turn following the Committee’s recommendation, and then Town Meeting would have at it regardless of what the Board decides (funds were previously approved for repair, but dam repair or spillway removal costs would need to be taken up anew by Town Meeting depending upon the Board’s decision). It’s possible that public sentiment through Town Meeting could be quite different than that of the Advisory Committee, given its structure, and given that outside conservation groups and consulting firms will presumably have less say during that process.
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