It has mostly outlived its use as a viable water supply, and now the Bristol County Water Authority hopes to remove a dam on the upper Kickemuit River that environmental advocates believe has degraded the river’s health over decades.
On Tuesday, BCWA engineer Ken Booth, a representative from Save The Bay and another engineer hired by the authority told the Warren Town Council about the BCWA’s hopes to remove a portion of the upper dam on the river.
Built in 1960 as a means to prevent the intrusion of salt water into the upper Kickemuit near the Massachusetts state line, the earthenware dam just north of Schoolhouse Road is hundreds of yards long. With one-way valves that prevent the intrusion of salt water during storms, the structure uses a series of buried pipes to move freshwater north of the dam south to the treatment plant on Child Street. Recently, the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) advised the BCWA that the dam needs maintenance work if it is going to continue to be used for the authority’s water supply needs. But with a plan to build a pipeline from Bristol County to Pawtucket, BCWA officials said they would rather decommission the dam once they have secured the separate redundant source of water that pipeline would provide. The dam would likely remain mostly intact, but with enough cut away to allow adequate flow of water north and south.
“The estimate to restore it is $250,000,” Mr. Booth told the council. “If we had to … remove a portion of it and not have to maintain it as a dam, (removing it) is probably a wise investment.”
The dam’s potential removal has caught the attention of environmental advocates including Save The Bay and the Kickemuit River Council (KRC). While opinions vary on what affect the dam’s removal will have on the river, Save The Bay’s Rachel Calabro, who spoke to the council Tuesday, said it will likely help efforts to restore the river’s natural herring run, restore natural vegetation along the upper Kickemuit and will help mitigate the effects of future sea level rise.
“We worked with the KRC to build that fish ladder (at the lower dam on Child Street) because fish do use the system for spawning,” she said. “So we’re very concerned about the fish once they get into the reservoir. If they can’t get through (the dam on) Schoolhouse Road, they’re stuck between the two dams. We want to see the whole thing restored for habitat.”
“Another part of this is that we also see in the summertime, the big massive algae bloom in that lower pond. It’s pea soup green; that’s not healthy either. If it were a better flushing system with more water running through it, then maybe those algae blooms wouldn’t happen as much.”
Not all are convinced that removing the dam won’t have untold adverse affects on the Kickemuit Reservoir south of the dam and the larger, saltwater stretch below Child Street.
Ann Morrill of the Kickemuit River Council, as well as a representative from the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association, said they worry that removing the dam will release untold amounts of sediment that have built up behind it over the years. They fear those sediments will migrate south, clouding the lower Kickemuit.
“One of the concerns for the Kickemuit River is the amount of silt,” Ms. Morrill said. “I don’t know what the engineers’ precaution is going go be to stop this flood of silt. This is a very dangerous thing. I want all that muck taken out.”
Ms. Calabro confirmed Wednesday that sediment will be released when the dam is removed and will head downriver. But how much will migrate, and what impact it will have must still be studied. Overall, she said she doesn’t necessarily share concerns.
“The lower river and the salt marshes can use that sediment,” she said. “We’ve been starving the river of those sediments for years. We’re not too concerned; we need to make sure that the studies show that it won’t stick around in certain areas and cause a problem. A certain amount of it will wash downstream (but) a lot of it will be stabilized.”
Any potential removal is still a few years off. Work cannot begin on the project until the BCWA’s new redundant source is secured. Concurrently, permitting for the removal will take 12 to 18 months, and deconstruction would take three to nine months. As the BCWA moves forward with its new pipeline project, studies on the impact of the dam’s removal will continue, both Mr. Booth and Ms. Calabro said Tuesday. In addition, the BCWA hopes to put together a work group with town and environmental representatives to help steer and advise the project.
One good outcome for nature lovers? Officials said that if the river is decommissioned and officially taken out of the water supply system, boaters and kayakers would likely be welcome to return one day.