Jaywalking: Highland Pond skating dilemma

  • Highland Pond has grown in along the banks and filled in with aquatic vegetation since it was last used for winter ice skating. recorder staff/jay butynski

Monday, April 02, 2018

To dredge or not to dredge?

That’s again the question at Highland Pond these days, and I must confess, I’m caught up in the debate.

The nostalgic part of me loves the idea of bringing skating back to the pond I spent many winter hours on as a kid. That seems to be the feelings of many local residents, or at least the ones who have been chiming in on social media. Many Greenfield residents who are 30 years of age or older can probably remember spending some amount of time skating on the pond, which was maintained during the winter months by the Greenfield DPW until the fall of 2002.

It was in October of 2002 that the Board of Selectmen first proposed prohibiting skating on frozen Highland Pond, according to an article that appeared in the Recorder. The move came after aquatic growth had exploded that summer, making it unlikely that the pond was going to produce ice thick enough to skate on. Insufficient ice thickness had resulted in only a week and a half of skating the prior winter, and made it impossible for the DPW to safely drive a plow the ice. Workers instead had to clear the pond with snowblowers, which took considerably more time. Because the snowblowing had to be done during storms, it also took manpower away from clearing roads, something that plenty of people also currently complain about in this town.

The board considered draining the pond and allowing the vegetation to die before refilling it. But that required permits and did not guarantee safe skating. The DPW provided an estimate to dredge the pond that year and the total was at $440,000, according to a recent Recorder article by Dan Desrochers. Seven years later, the town again looked at the possibility of dredging the pond and that estimate — provided by DPW engineer Larry Petrin, who also did the 2002 estimate — had jumped up to $580,000.

Now, nine years later we are once again looking into revitalizing the lost treasure in the morning shadow of Rocky Mountain.

I took a short afternoon ride Monday from the Recorder office over to Highland Pond. I drove past the houses I as a child referred to as “dollhouses” on Highland Ave. A Victorian neighborhood of the Industrial Revolution, large, colorful homes line the way up the hill. I pulled into the park around 3:30. By that time, the light snow that had fallen on Monday morning had already melted away and several cars were in the parking lot, as folks went for hikes and took dogs for walks. One man appeared to be asleep (or passed out) in his car, parked in front of the gate that was closed, keeping cars from driving next to the pond.

I parked my car and made the short walk toward the old warming hut that still sits next to the pond. There, I bumped into a young man I knew. He was walking his dog and pointed out the reason why the gates to Highland Pond were now closed. It appeared that the gates had been left open for too long, and cars were driving through the dirt road when the ground began to thaw, leaving large driveway ruts.

What really caught my eye was that the pond I once spent so much time on, looked vastly different than it once had. Small trees now grow where skaters entered the ice near the hut, and cattails and other scrub grew along the banks of much of the northern end and sides of the pond. I remember some cattails in that area as a youth, but nothing like what is now there.

Another thing that caught my eye was the depth of the pond, which seems shallow, and allows passersby to clearly see all the aquatic growth. It’s clearly going to take some dough to get the pond back what it was when ice skating was popular.

The question is, how much money will it cost? That and, is it worth it? I reached out late Monday afternoon to Isaac Mass, an At-Large City Councilor in Greenfield who is the Community Relations and Education Committee chairman, but was unable to get in touch with him. One person I did reach was Kate Wilkins, who is a Greenfield resident who was at the Community Relations and Education Committee meeting last week along with roughly two dozen residents. Wilkins is a project environmental scientist for Tighe and Bond, who also works on wetland permitting. She has a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Conservation and a master’s degree in Water, Wetlands and Watersheds.

She said that she attended the meeting because she was interested to hear about the project, which is very much still in the planning stages. Despite never having skated on the pond — she is married to Greenfield native Ethan Wilkins and lives in town with their twin boys Wyatt and Hunter — she said that the nostalgia of having a pond on which to skate is appealing. Ethan skated on the pond when he was a kid and said that he would love to carry on the tradition of taking his own sons to the pond.

Putting aside the issue of money, the biggest issue that opponents have is the environmental impact that dredging the pond might have. According to what I was seeing on social media, the idea of dredging the pond immediately had some people up in arms.

Wilkins said that dredging the pond has pros and cons. She said that when there is too much sediment in the pond, it provides substrate for plant life to grow. With more plant growth, those plants use up more oxygen in the water, that reduces oxygen in the water, and when those plants die, it increases the nutrient load in the system. Eventually, it causes eutrification, which is when there are excessive nutrients in a body of water, and does not promote a healthy aquatic system.

Wilkins said that fish, frogs and turtles would still inhabit the pond, and that dredging a pond with too much plant life could be good for fisheries and amphibians.

She stressed that she has not been to Highland Pond recently, and she is unsure of what the current situation is there. If the committee decides to go ahead with investigating the project, an assessment of the pond would be done and that person would likely then give estimates based on the work that needed to be done. That could roughly cost up to $20,000, and would be the first step.

As for potential negative impacts, Wilkins said that there are plenty to worry about, but that if the project ever got green-lighted, proper project planning and the regulatory requirements would likely limits these impacts. If you plan the project effectively and work within the permit regulations, the negatives can be reduced because of the steps the town would have to take. It’s likely to be an extensive procedure that could prove too costly to move forward on.

Wilkins said that one issue is that the area adjacent to Highland Pond is labeled as a priority habitat by MassWildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, which means there is some type of plant or animal listed as an endangered species that calls the area surrounding it home.

There are plenty of other issues that could arise. One is what to do with the sediment when it’s extracted, because it cannot simply be trucked away. The sediment is likely to be stockpiled near the pond in order to dry it out before it is taken to a landfill or elsewhere. The sediment would also have to be tested for contaminants, which would pose further disposal problems. Another problem is if the pond feeds any other streams, you can’t simply cut off the supply of water to that stream, so water might have to be pumped or diverted.

It all adds up to a lot of potential hurdles and could very well top the $1 million mark. The commission is going to meet again on April 23 to further discuss the project. After that we could very well get some answers.

Some of that money could come from grants, but the town would likely be on the hook for plenty of money. Which then leads us back to the question of whether it’s worth it?

I badly want it to be worth the money. I want the winters around here to be conducive for having a skating pond. I want to bring my daughter Charlotte and her brother/sister who will be born this month to Highland Pond when they are a little older, just as my parents brought me when I was a kid.

I’m just not sure the price is right.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com. Like him on Facebook and leave your feedback at www.facebook.com/jaybutynski.