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Donlon and Singler/My Turn: The case for dam removal

The Town of Greenfield owns four dams on the Green River; the lower two formerly served mills but are no longer in use. Our organizations, together with others, have been assisting the town for the last six years to remove the lowermost dam, the Wiley & Russell Dam near Meridian Street.

In December, Mayor William Martin responded to recent opposition and decided to put the removal effort on hold while exploring repair options. Having worked on this project for so long, we will share our perspective regarding Greenfield’s plan for the Green River.

We envision a free-flowing Green River along Meade Street that is visually appealing, integrates with a planned greenway, educates the public about Greenfield’s important industrial history, and provides a new chapter in the life of the Green River. Mayor Martin’s recently articulated vision for the Meadows Golf Course could dovetail nicely with Greenfield’s natural resources going hand in hand with a vibrant economy.

Dam removal makes economic sense for Greenfield. As with any infrastructure, the town is responsible for inspections and maintenance at these dams and any decision should weigh costs and benefits. When Mayor Christine Forgey decided to proceed with dam removal in 2008, she made it clear that she was choosing the cheaper option for the town; it wasn’t a preference for fish over the town’s history.

We pledged that, with the town’s support, we would apply for grants and try to keep town costs to a minimum. We have done that. As of the end of 2013, we have funded, managed and completed the engineering design and permitting for removal. Much funding is in place for dam removal. So far, the town has spent only staff time at meetings and in consultation. Removal had been scheduled to take place late summer and fall in 2014.

Though we originally also looked at removing the Mill Street Dam, our consulting engineers identified previously unknown infrastructure protection issues upstream of that dam, driving the costs too high for removal in the current economic climate. The Wiley & Russell Dam removal continued because the dam is in poor condition, requires immediate extensive repairs and its removal will eliminate a maintenance need and liability for the town. (The town currently has to pay for inspections every six months because of its hazard rating combined with its poor condition.)

Based on our experiences, we know firsthand that it will be expensive for the town to repair and keep the dam if that is what is decided. Removal was going to cost the town, perhaps, $150,000 beyond the $40,000 it had committed. We think design, permitting and repair will cost the town $350,000 to over $1 million, depending on what repairs are needed in the short term for state safety compliance. Long-term costs will also be high, including a full replacement at some point. Delaying the dam removal project means the town is missing out on upcoming grant opportunities that could have eliminated town expense for the removal construction altogether. Greenfield may lose the grant funds that are already in place for the removal, too.

If the town decides to keep the dam despite the cost, one would expect the dam to fulfill a community need or have some purpose. But does it?

We have worked with residents who are excited about the river restoration project, but we have also heard concerns about the loss of the dam because it is a historic resource and visually appealing. We recognize all of these issues. In our opinion, they don’t outweigh the benefits of removal.

There is an opportunity to find mutually acceptable solutions. There are a variety of measures that can be implemented to honor the dam site and also provide educational features to tell the story of the entire former manufacturing area. This could also help the town fulfill its never-completed historic mitigation obligations for taking down the Greenfield Tap & Die plant. Imagine visitors along a future greenway who could encounter, for example:

A viewing platform overlooking portions of the former dam with historical markers describing how dams were used to drive the industrial revolution and displaying archival quality photos taken before the removal;

Material from the dam used along the Meade Street greenway, possibly re-assembled into a display or as parts of the walkway, together with educational markers about the historical district and river ecology and restoration;

Walking historical tours along the river (as is being done with three dam removals in the city of Taunton) and other collaboration with historical organizations related to the dam and industries it served.

We think dam removal could be done in a way that is a win-win for the town and its residents. It makes sense economically, environmentally and can honor Greenfield’s rich industrial history together with its natural history.

Andrea Donlon is the Massachusetts River Steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council, based in Greenfield. Amy Singler is associate director of the River Restoration Program for American Rivers and The Nature Conservancy, based in Northampton.

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