Natick’s public deliberation over whether to save or remove the Charles River dam continued at the Oct. 3 Select Board meeting (starting shortly after the 1-hour mark of the Pegasus recording), where members of the public did most of the talking over the span of more than 90 minutes on issues ranging from wildlife impacts to the dam’s history. Speakers included those who live in Natick or nearby, as well as those from special interest groups.
Notably, comments from the public included those of a Natick resident and Wellesley College professor whose question about possibly removing the dam back at a meeting back in November of 2019 has been cited by town officials as setting off the series of events that has brought us to where we are today.
Jay Turner, a Wellesley College professor of environmental studies who this year released a book about the history of batteries, said he and his family moved to Natick in large part because of the river, dam, and overall beauty of the area. He attended that 2019 meeting (as did my Natick Report co-editor) alarmed about the need to repair the dam, and then further concerned upon learning of the significant changes this would involve, such as removal of a bunch of trees and the possible adding of riprap rocks like those seen on along highways.
“At that meeting, I—and I think many people there—were really concerned about what seemed to be a big project that was moving forward at a rapid rate which really hadn’t been discussed much publicly at that point,” he said. “I was the person in the context of that meeting that did broach the possibility of whether the town had considered removing the dam. I didn’t ask that question with kind of a clear sense in my mind of what the town should do. It seemed to me that we had a very big decision ahead of us and it made sense to consider all the different possibilities before making a commitment.”
Turner called the process that has since taken place very meaningful given all the information gather and public feedback welcomed. He’s come to support removal based on a number of factors, including reduced liability for the town, environmental benefits, and honoring the indigenous community with ties to the river and land, while also providing an opportunity to reimagine the area.
Exactly what becomes of the dam and spillway (aka, waterfall) might not be known for months or years to come. But the Select Board could make a decision on removal vs. repair as soon as Oct. 19, according to Board Chair Paul Joseph (a decision Joseph admitted could anger half of the town). “We acknowledge the long-term implications that flow from here,” he said.
The Board has received a report from an Advisory Committee appointed by a former town administrator, plus an overwhelming amount of correspondence from the public. The board is now is discussing the matter amongst itself, publicly, but with input and questions from the public at meetings like this and the recent Sept. 28 meeting. An Oct. 12 meeting behind closed doors—an official executive session—will focus on legal matters that have arisen.
Joseph said one phrase that has jumped out to him from the dialogue to this point is “the only opinion that matters,” as in, whether concerns of the Indigenous community should outweigh those of abutters or others in town who are not part of that community. “Everyone’s perspective matters. I think each individual makes a decision as to what level that matters to them,” he said.
Later, Joseph acknowledged: “Look, if I had a house on the river I’d probably be the first one out there with signs and petitions myself…”
(Disclosure: We are river neighbors.)
Larry Slotnick, who lives across from dam, says the first such structure was built in that area of the Charles 260 years ago, and over time became “an enduring symbol of the town of Natick,” including on postcards that he had for show and tell. He raised concerns about dam removal creating mudflats and a stench, as was the case in the 1920s after a dam was carried away by bad weather.
“The dam is some of Natick’s oldest history, and we’re throwing it all away. I know people are well meaning and they want to restore the river to its natural state, and that all sounds great, but it’s impossible. After 260 years the natural state of that river is gone. What we are now doing is destroying the habitat that exists now for fish, turtles, herons, swans and all the other animals that have made that lake [above the dam] their home for over 250 years.”
The Natick Historical Society, which has been approached by people doing research about the dam’s history during this process, shared a letter with the board in September that Joseph read. It states: “Historical significance is a relative judgment. What is historically significant to one generation may not be to another. Similarly, what is historically significant in one context such as time or place, may not be in another. The reverse is also true—what one generation overlooks, another may revere. What is obscured in one context may shine in another… To that end, we trust the Select Board will regard arguments of historical significance not as fixed and unchanging determinations, but as illustrations of values held by particular people in a particular time in a particular.”
Resident Diane Young, who urged the town to remove the grove of trees atop the earthen dam immediately to avoid possible liability, also applauded Natick Public Schools for teaching kids about the river’s history from the perspective of the Nipmuc Nation. Members of the Natick Nipmuc Indian Council were on the Charles River Advisory Committee, and shared their insights with fellow members, who included such considerations in the final report handed to the Select Board.
“It’s so important that we learn about the history of our river, but we can’t undo unfortunately history that was so shameful, we can’t bring the river back,” Young said, adding that students also need to know the history of the current dam. She described how it was built by 3,000 Natick residents after the Great Depression to create a community recreation area. “That dam is historic. It represents our Great Depression how our country got revitalized.”
Steve Dannin, an Eliot Street resident near the dam, said he bought his house because of its history. The home’s builder had a canoe and kayak livery along the shore of the Charles there, and the house is part of the John Eliot Historic District. Dannin said the town owes him the same assurances that it won’t change his view of the river as he owes the town and neighbors by not changing his house or property in certain ways.
Select Board Chair Paul Joseph said at the start of the Oct. 3 meeting that the town of Natick is “doing our best in an era of no local newspaper that is seen in the same way as local newspapers were many years ago” to get the word out about the dam decision process. Please support our independent journalism venture.
Speaking up for wildlife
Speakers from special interest groups such as the Greater Boston Chapter of Trout Unlimited argued in favor of dam removal to try to restore the river to a more natural state. “We’re particularly interested that the removal of the dam will allow for the reconnection of two tributaries that hold native trout popular one above the dam and one below the dam,” said Mike Yeomans, who referenced restoration of Traphole Brook in Norwood as a recent example for people to look at.
The Charles River Watershed Association‘s Robert Kearns, a regular throughout the dam discussion process, returned to emphasize removal of the South Natick dam would be in line with removal of dozens of dams across the state and 10 on the Charles. Dam removals across the state have opened more than 300 miles of free flowing river, establishing a track record for this sort of change, he said.
Town officials, in response to numerous members of the public referencing expected significant water level declines above the current dam if the spillway is removed, emphasized that lower levels will not be ubiquitous. “The entire river will not change to a half an inch to a foot of water,” said Sustainability Director Jillian Wilson-Martin. “That’s in a very specific segment of the river. That’s an 860-foot stretch of river where the Stantec report predicts that change….” [See consultancy Stantec’s June 27 presentation to the Charles River Advisory Committee.]
Still, some who spoke aren’t convinced dam removal is going to restore South Natick’s chunk of the river to what it was back in the day. Candy Hulton, who cited an effort to restore Shaw Park across the street from the dam as an example of the town changing course, encouraged the Board (which, all repeat, “has not yet made a decision”) to continue being open minded about what should happen to the dam. She stated that without other downstream dams being removed, elimination of the South Natick structure isn’t really going to help the fish, and will leave upstream abutters with a “mucky mess.”
Some of those against dam removal, or at least against a near-term decision to remove it, argued for more studies to be done about the sediment that a removal could unleash and other possible impacts. Joseph and Claire Rundelli, planner and conservation agent under the town’s Community & Economic Development arm, assured the public that more studies would take place once whatever decision is made, and the permitting process gets underway. The town won’t have all the financial or environmental answers until things get going, Joseph said.
One property owner asked about the possible impact dam removal could have on animals and how much it would cost to research this and protect wildlife if need be.
Rundelli didn’t have figures to share about costs, but said the state’s Natural Heritage Endangered Species Program hasn’t identified the area as being an “estimated or priority habitat.” Having said that, she acknowledged some animals might need to be displaced up or down river, if say they require more of a pond-like habitat than a riverine one (the aquatic version of eminent domain?). Swans are an example of an animal that might make their way closer to the Mass Audubon’s Broadmoor sanctuary up river.
Mass Audubon, by the way, is all for dam removal, as indicated in a July letter to the Select Board read by Joseph during the recent meeting. The letter cites the release of methane and the breeding of algae blooms among the downsides attributed to a combination of the dam and drought.
(If we hear that dam removal will send Canada Geese on their way from this section of the Charles, then end the debate now and have at it Natick…)
While the Oct. 3 meeting gave those on all sides of this matter more to think about and research, the Select Board moves ahead with its schedule. That will include an Oct. 19 meeting during which it could make a decision.
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