Natick town officials over the past 2 weeks have shared plans for removing the Charles River spillway and fish ladder at the South Natick dam and answered questions from the public on topics such as sediment, construction, and flooding risks.
The Select Board voted in late 2022 to ditch the high hazard dam for financial/liability, environmental, and other reasons. The town reversed course from 2018 and 2019, when it planned to repair the structure. Buttressed by a nationwide trend to remove dams and availability of grants, Natick chose the removal route.
The first dam removal meeting on Jan. 24 was held online and attended by at least 90 people, not all of whom were consultants. The second, attended by a few dozen people, was conducted on Jan. 30 at Memorial Elementary School, where there was the bonus of a nice snack spread, plus Sticky Notes for an arts-and-crafts style Q&A exercise.
Those leading the project have stressed that these initial opportunities for public input won’t be the last. A similar approach is being taken for developing a new park surrounding the river, with the projects being done in parallel but syncing up where it makes sense.
Remaining resistance from those who have sought to save the dam seemed reduced to a trickle similar to what the water is projected to flow like during drought periods in the area vacated by the dam. Questions raised included those about whether the flow of sediment now stored behind the spillway might muck up anything for downstream neighbors, but town officials and consultants assured the public that their careful release of some 10,000-15,000 cubic yards of sediments and aggressive approach to invasive species management should protect the river and properties. No contaminant levels of concern have been detected in the sediment, which tests have shown to be similar above and below the dam (see latest testing). Dam removals have been shown to improve water quality, as water impounded behind dams can heat up to levels unhealthy for wildlife.
While no one knows exactly what course the freed river will take, the project team indicated there should be no reason for new safety concerns either for upstream or downstream abutters. The change could take a toll on fish like pumpkinseeds and bass used to the pond environment above the dam, but fish such as trout that thrive in more traditional river environments should be psyched. Just as critters have been resilient and adapted to the existing conditions, they are expected to do likewise under new ones.
The town is beginning the tedious and detailed permitting process, which is slated to last a couple of years, as work gets underway with the state. Preceding permitting will be a review by the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act Office. The town will be required to submit an Expanded Environmental Notification Form that will advertised in something called a “newspaper” as well as other places (we hope this includes our site, so that people might actually see it). A public consultation session related to the MEPA review will be planned for spring.
The construction period during which the spillway and fish ladder will be removed is expected to be a quicker process in 2025-2027; work will mainly take place from the Grove Park side across from the Bacon Free Library side of the river. Removal of the spillway and fish ladder should only take a few months, and will be held during low flow conditions (if those ever return). A consultant shared examples of some obscure-looking dams that have been removed to give a sense of the process involved.
Several members of the project team cited the highly regulated nature of this effort as a measure of assurance. The overall project will include coordination among town departments, a few state agencies, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
That reliance on numerous parties had at least one attendee at the Memorial school meeting concerned, as he pondered whether this could put taxpayers at financial risk if the project gets stalled due to any of the parties getting “a burr under their saddle.” Project manager Bill Spratt, the town’s executive director of facilities and public works, acknowledged this concern, stating “the risk is in the permitting process.”
Natick hopes to pay for much of this project through federal and state grants, and already has a $250,000 dam and seawall award. The rest, after any additional grants, will come from Town Meeting appropriations to be determined.