Dam removal at Warren RI gets key approval

WARREN – A plan to restore the Kickemuit River to its natural state has reached a key milestone with the approval of a request to remove a concrete dam that was built on the waterway nearly 140 years ago. year.

The Rhode Island Coastal Resource Management Board on Tuesday granted a request from the Bristol County Water Authority to demolish the lower Kickemuit Dam, which is located near Child Street and serves as a boundary line between the freshwater and water of the eight-mile-long river that runs from the headwaters of Rehoboth to Mount Hope Bay in Bristol.

The water authority’s proposal to demolish the Upper Kickemuit Dam, a new earth embankment less than a mile upstream, is still pending before the state Department of Environmental Management.

Environmentalists are in favor, but neighbors are against it

The dams were built to create reservoirs which were an integral part of the drinking water system of Barrington, Bristol and Warren. But with the water authority buying supplies from the Scituate Reservoir and now working on a backup connection through East Providence, the reservoirs no longer perform any useful function for the county’s water system and have fallen into disrepair. .

Their removal has the support of Save The Bay, which advised the authority on the project, and the DEM’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. The Kickemuit River Council is also in favor of removing the dams and restoring the natural tidal flow to the full extent of the river. The groups say ecologically valuable salt marshes will be created, river herring will be able to reach spawning habitat more easily, access for kayakers and fishers will be improved, and the works will help with flood resistance.

“We believe the dam removal project will restore the Kickemuit River to its pristine condition and aid in the migration of native species to our waters,” River Board David Durban wrote in a letter to the Coastal Board.

But neighbors opposed the plan, saying it could hurt property values ​​and lead to salt water contamination of their wells. They say the water authority has been irresponsible in failing to maintain the dams and should make repairs rather than tear them down.

“Now the risk, because they didn’t do what they were supposed to do under Rhode Island law, is transferred to the community,” Robert Botelho, a resident of Serpentine Road, told the council at the meeting on Tuesday evening.

He asked the authority to install a new water pipe to ensure that his house and others are not damaged if the underground aquifer is contaminated as salt water begins to mix with the fresh water in the reopened parts of the river.

Despite concerns raised by Botelho – the only dissenter to testify at the meeting – the council approved the water authority’s request. But as part of their decision, council members asked the authority to test the wells for salinity before and after the lower dam was removed. Authority executive director Steve Coutu also told council that the installation of the water main would be assessed in terms of cost and feasibility.

He said after the meeting that studies carried out by engineers hired by the authority concluded that the wells will not be impacted. At this stage there are no plans to pre-emptively run a new water main under Serpentine Road.

“These are deep wells and we don’t anticipate any issues,” Coutu said.

Dams in poor condition, no longer needed

The 250-foot-wide lower dam was built in 1883 to store drinking water for the residents of Warren, Bristol, and later Barrington. The upper dam and reservoir above followed in 1961, after Hurricane Carol in 1954 contaminated the lower reservoir with salt water.

But the reservoirs were largely rendered redundant in 1998 when the water board completed a pipeline under the Providence River and became a wholesale customer of Providence Water, which draws its water from the Scituate Reservoir. The Kickemuit reservoirs have been maintained as an emergency supply, but are no longer needed with an ongoing plan to connect to the Pawtucket Water Supply Commission system.

With maintenance costs rising and the use of dams ending, it made no sense for the authority to pay to fix them, Coutu said.

The same goes for the sewage treatment plant around 1908 that the authority owns near the lower dam. It was decommissioned in 2019 and is scheduled for demolition.

Climate change is a factor in authority decisions. Infrastructure along the Kickemuit is considered vulnerable to extreme storms and surges, which increase with rising sea levels. By removing the structures, the authority would open up more areas to hold back floodwaters.

Engineering studies predict that removing the two dams would reduce the frequency of flooding above the lower dam. While flooding could increase slightly in some places in some scenarios, it would decrease during a 100-year storm, the benchmark event used to measure flood risk.

Coastal Board staff raised no concerns with the lower weir plan and recommended its approval.

Grants to pay for the move

State and federal grants totaling $2.6 million are expected to cover the entire cost of removing the two dams, Coutu said.

The authority is awaiting news from the DEM on the upper dam. The state agency is also assessing the impacts on water quality resulting from the removal of the two dams. And the US Army Corps of Engineers must also approve both projects.

The DEM is expected to conclude its reviews within the next month, according to spokesman Michael Healey. Agency staff support the project as they believe it will reduce stagnant conditions in the reservoirs and “significantly improve water quality and habitat for a wide variety of fish and wildlife” , did he declare.

“At the same time, however, we cannot prejudge a permit,” he said. “A project must still meet environmental standards.”

If all goes well, the project could go to tender this winter and demolition could start around this time next year.

“It’s a good step for us,” Coutu said of Tuesday’s decision.

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