It might not have surprised some if the Natick Select Board went right ahead on Wednesday night during its meeting and made a decision about the Charles River dam’s fate. After all, earlier this month it had been handed a detailed report with a clear recommendation to remove the spillway (aka, waterfall) by the Charles River Dam Advisory Committee, a town administrator-appointed group that’s been working on the matter since last year.
But Select Board Chair Paul Joseph made clear from the start of the agenda item that he wouldn’t be entertaining a motion to make a decision during the meeting. The focus of what turned out to be a 2-hour-plus session (start at the 1-hour, 33-minute mark of the Pegasus recording) was to be on receiving a recap of the report from those involved in putting it together, allowing board members to ask questions, and then letting the public speak (civilly).
Town Administrator Jamie Errickson kicked things off with a short history of the current version of the high hazard dam, built in 1934. His timeline jumped from then into the 2000s, when the state upped its dam inspection efforts and Natick began thinking more seriously about its property. The town headed down the road of repairing the dam, but after concerns were raised by the public about trees atop the dam needing to be removed, Natick began exploring the alternative of removing the spillway.
As Joseph said leading into board discussion, “My understanding is that in either scenario there is significant work to be done and significant dollars to be spent whether we keep the dam or remove the dam, there’s massive engineering work to be done, design work as well as construction,” he said. “I think one of the most uncomfortable outcomes from this and the fact that we need to make a decision is the fact that we do not and will not have all of the facts… We’re not going to be able to wait ’til we know what the final dollar figure is to make a decision.”
New decisions could be made down the road as well as exploratory work is done, said Joseph, who acknowledged there’s work to be done over years to come.
Board member Michael Hickey asked when the town is actually obligated to take some action on the dam by state. Errickson said the state has asked Natick to take action by early 2024, but has indicated that as long as the town moves forward towards the permitting and design process as it is doing, then the state will work with it, extending deadlines as needed. Based on an order from the state, the town’s already on a more frequent inspection schedule in the wake of its dam rating falling from fair to poor, McDowell said. The state is looking for a plan from the town on its dam by year end, he added.
Hickey also pondered the origin story of the dam breach idea, which several town employees said really came to light in 2019 when a person stood up at a public meeting about the dam attended by McDowell and others from the town. This look back at the breach idea’s origins led the board at its meeting on Wednesday to then get into a bit of a soul searching discussion on the power of speaking up, plus some acknowledgement that breaching had actually been considered earlier by town employees, but never rose to the level of public discussion.
In that spirit of speaking up, a bit earlier in the meeting board member Kathryn Coughlin said she had read through the dam inspection reports as well as dam correspondence she had requested from the state. She asked why the town hasn’t done more work to fix issues (fallen trees, erosion, an upstream warning buoy, etc.) with the dam getting similar unfavorable inspection reports from the state in 2017 (“fair” rating) and again late last year (“poor” rating). Errickson said there has been permitting and design work done.
(Coincidentally, I’d reached out to the town this week, too, to ask about why there are no warning signs above the dam, given the town’s concerns about liability. As a boater, if you didn’t know the spillway was there, it’d be too late once your vessel was upon it.)
Town Engineer Bill McDowell said there has been a lot of back and forth between the town and the state on on the dam reports to help the town understand how to get permission to get work done. He said in years past a dam failure didn’t seem imminent. “So there was no compelling reason to move forward with maintenance at that time,” McDowell said. “What we’re seeing now with these more anomalous weather events is that this is becoming more and more of a problem.”
Coughlin also raised a question about the town exploring further the possibility of partial spillway removal, an issue raised in the emails she went through. McDowell said that partial removal could result in a lower elevation dam with less water impounded behind it, and this could mean the dam would be reclassified from a high hazard dam to just a dam. The question was how much would need to be removed to release the structure from Natick’s jurisdiction, and that would be about two-thirds of it, McDowell said. “Which is essentially total removal of the spillway…” he said.
Early during the discussion, new board member Rich Sidney said: “Between the report and the presentation it seems clear to me in my opinion this is as much emotional as it is fiscal and we really have to hear from the public at large to gauge the emotional content.”
The first speaker lamented the loss of the Natick Tab newspaper and other such forms of communication to help get the word out to Save Natick Dam well beyond the South Natick area (Ahem, I guess we need to do a better job of promoting Natick Report, which has written dozens of posts about the dam over the past two years.).
Resident Saul Beaumont, who has submitted a Town Meeting article regarding dam repair (see also “South Natick dam drama continues”), raised concerns about the make-up of the Advisory Committee, which includes a handful of government employees among its members. Errickson said they were included because of their areas of expertise, such as parks/recreation and the public works.
Another resident asked about what those living downstream of the dam can expect in terms of water flow if the spillway is removed. As a run-of-the-river dam, the structure was not designed to actively control water flow, town officials have consistently said, and McDowell maintained that at the Select Board meeting. Though he did allow that the spillway does create some drag that can meter the water. The aggregate flow of the water will not change much, however, he said.
One river neighbor urged the board to consider an engineering study from consultant Stantec that was revealed in late June, and argued that it may not have been given full attention by the committee. In short, it indicated water depth could plummet several feet in a lengthy section above the dam. “This is a treasure of Natick and it’s too important to make a decision without knowing all the relevant information that we can. I know it’s not possible to know everything but this is new information and we found it out at the 11th hour,” she said. (Natick Director of Sustainability Jillian Wilson-Martin said most members did appreciate that the river would change significantly and that the committee had a couple of meetings to deliberate after that study was available.)
Questions and comments came fast and furious. Resident Leonard Bernheimer asked the board how it would factor the aesthetic value of the spillway into its decision. Diane Young wanted to know why the town isn’t taking down the trees atop the dam right now if they’re such a possible threat to safety. Brad Peterson asked if upon the town possibly going through the start of a pre-removal process whether it would revisit such a decision if it finds through required studies that “it’s not as environmentally wonderful to remove the dam as the committee assumes it is.”
The board has been fielding plenty of emails, too, and Joseph invited the public to send more (consolidating comments and questions where possible if groups are coordinating).
There will be more opportunities for public input. The board plans to pick up the issue again at its Sept. 28 meeting.
Disclaimer: We’re a river neighbor.