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Starkey/My Turn: Reversing river course

The Recorder’s editorial “Time and river” (Aug. 16) is a synopsis of the 14-year discussion of value, specifically from the town’s Green River dams.

Historical Commission involvement began in that year with a 2009 comment on the proposal to remove both dams by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had run out of things to do in Vermont. Its plan was picked up by American Rivers and its partners in a time of high-pressure dam removal.

Today, towns have moved to more-considered decisions, although the “river restoration” groups have continued their pressure for removal. Supported by just under $100,000 in public money for permitting and project design, the American Rivers group plan for Wiley & Russel Dam removal includes an embankment retaining wall under the Green River Cemetery to control the highly erodible soil on both sides of the river. A Science magazine article documented this problem by looking at river history and found this to be a common response to dam removal. In addition, the Greenfield USDA geologist has warned that “removal of dams upstream or downstream could lower the grade of the river channel and cause further instability.”

Soils maps show large areas of highly erodible soils on both sides and length of the Green River. The 1852 Map of Greenfield, that includes the steep riverbanks (now developed areas), is a warning. We know glacial floes formed the Green River and that it is still fed by the Greenfield Mountain streams. They can’t be turned off.

The Corps of Engineers’ 2009 proposal to fund removal of both dams was accepted in a letter from Mayor Forgey as “the only way to meet our need to repair the Wiley and Russell Dam” — obviously a difficult and conflicted statement. That plan is no longer on the table and there has been no public announcement of a replacement.

The editorial called attention to the Wiley & Russell Dam safety reports. They have been widely misread. The dam safety reports in 2005 and after recommended a “low hazard” rating. This means that dam failure does not pose a threat to life or property. Observation and record photos tell us that this “run of the river” dam held up as designed during Irene, despite little town maintenance (small bank tree removal) since acquiring it the 1960s. Its gates and abutments do need repair. As an engineering resource, the dam preserves the cutting edge design of its day (from a book John Russell said he read), is founded on bedrock, without an impoundment and under the current dam minimum height.

Some ideas await.

Al Dray’s sketch of a platform overlooking the dam may still come to pass. The 2007 Urban Rivers 2 Community Plan for the Green River attended by more than 60 citizens didn’t include dam removal but envisioned the recreation area plan now under way. The report deserves revisiting. Heritage Mills, a Northeastern Sustainable Resource Center, has suggested an educational plan for the town, partnering with UMass and others focusing on education, engineering and ecology.

Dam removal is not a “one-size fits all” proposition. If we assume that the town would be asked to install a fish ladder at the Mill Street Dam, it could open the swimming pool to unwelcome but numerous sea lamprey, posing problems for especially young swimmers.

I see some light at the end of tunnel. In March, the Historical Commission advised the mayor of the new state Dam Safety Trust, a grant/loan program favoring municipalities owning needy dams. The dam is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and is a rare and possibly unique structure statewide. This program responds to the advocates of civil engineering structures as state resources and the Wiley & Russell Dam is “rare and possibly unique” and is a Greenfield resource. A visionary leadership decision based on new programs, new information and a new funding possibility is needed by the mayor and Town Council, assisted by the town planner. It has potential to move Greenfield to a new level of visionary leadership.

Marcia Starkey, a Greenfield resident, is a member of the Greenfield Historical Commission.

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