Pawcatuck River at Potter Hill
Potter Hill Dam
Reducing flood risks and improving fish passage on the Pawcatuck River
Last rebuilt in 1903, the Potter Hill dam is in disrepair and poses flood risks to properties and residents who live along the river. Decrepit raceway and outlet structures pose a risk of failure, and may result in a catastrophic release of water downstream. A team of engineers, scientists and community partners are evaluating a set of potential solutions not only to address flood risk but restoring migratory fish runs on one of Rhode Island’s most prized rivers. Please join the Town and partners online on March 18 to hear what we’ve learned so far, share your helpful knowledge of the river, and ask questions about the project.
A Community Priority
The Potter Hill dam and raceway are failing, its water control gates are inoperable, and the dilapidated Potter Hill mill is falling into the river. Local leaders and community residents identified the dam structure as a top priority in a 2019 resilience plan, informed by community workshops led by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank. Remains of the mill are also a significant public safety hazard, and the raceway associated with the dam are intricately linked with the mill.
The risk of dam failure poses a challenge to the community, and the risk will only increase as intense rains increase in frequency and coastal storms are predicted to become more powerful.
Fish Passage Restoration Offers Federal Funding Opportunity
In 2020, the Town of Westerly received a $100,000 grant, the first phase of a multi-year funding award from the NOAA Restoration Center, matched by the Town of Westerly, TNC and other potential sources, to study fish passage improvements and flood mitigation, including full or partial dam removal. Engineers and scientists are assessing the dam, analyzing sediment samples, and investigating potential changes to properties along the river, bridges, wetlands, and other environmental features and infrastructure.
A Wild, Scenic & Healthy River with Benefits
The Potter Hill dam is the last major barrier to migratory fish and impediment to public water recreation on the Pawcatuck River. Reconnecting the river will complete a two-decade effort to benefit recreational boating, improve water quality, and open habitat for spring-returning adult river herring, American shad and young eel. Herring and eel are key forage fish for striped bass, bluefish, osprey, seabirds, and other fish and wildlife, and American shad are prized sport fish and seafood. Restoring a healthier river also means greater uses recreational uses: swimming, fishing, paddling, wildlife viewing, and eco-tourism. Site improvements can also improve public access. A healthy environment goes hand-in-hand with a healthier economy.
Community Outreach and Involvement
Project planning will continue through fall 2021. The science and engineering team will continue to assess available information, share its findings, answer questions, and seek community input through online workshops, plus receive written letters from the public. The first meeting is scheduled for March 18 at 6pm.