By DAVID SMITH/ecoRI News contributor
WESTERLY, R.I. — Recent federal legislation to study the idea of designating the Wood-Pawcatuck River watershed as “Wild & Scenic” could have an impact on the planned removal of the White Rock Dam.
The 112-foot-wide dam is on the Pawcatuck River, about a half-mile upstream from downtown. Work has been scheduled to begin next year, but that timeframe could be in trouble. Federal Sandy funds totaling $1.9 million are earmarked for the project, but that money must be used next year.
However, with the approval of the legislation Dec. 12, any work on the river could face review by the National Park Service (NPS). The work already faces review by another federal agency, the Army Corps of Engineers.
While it's unclear whether that approval process by the park service could be completed to meet the funding deadline, Army Corps regulatory permit project manager Michael Elliott recently said that the park service "will have a chance to comment, but I won't hold it up. I am sure that everyone is supportive of the dam removal."
Work in the river can only be done July through October. If the project does not begin in July because of a concern voiced by NPS, it would have to be rescheduled for the following year. The contractor would need the full season, from July to October, to complete the project. Any delay would put that timetable in jeopardy.
Elliott said that if the NPS doesn’t respond regarding the dam removal, he would take that as a sign of concurrence with the plan. The Army Corps is currently involved in the project. Elliott recently met with The Nature Conservancy, which is leading the project, and its partners. The dam's removal still needs approval from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP).
Asked about the possible need for NPS approval, Scott Comings, associate director for the Rhode Island chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said his group is trying to figure out what the designation means to the dam's removal.
“We are trying to figure that out,” Comings said. “We have to ask the park service. We are working with all the players. We don’t know what the process would be. Chris Fox is working on researching that for us."
Fox is executive director of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, which led the effort to remove the Kenyon Dam and Lower Shannock Falls Dam and build a fish ladder at the Horseshoe Falls Dam several miles upstream from the White Rock Dam. He said that if the approval process stops the work on the dam’s removal in July it will in essence kill the project.
The federal government would take back the Sandy funds, divide them up and give them to other projects that might be over budget, Fox said.
"I do not believe (NPS) approval is required,” Fox said. "I believe NPS need only be consulted. The passage of the bill means that consultation between the project and the National Park Service needs to occur as part of the project permitting. As I understand it, that consultation will be initiated by the Army Corps of Engineers as part of its permitting process. If the NPS does not approve of the dam’s removal, it is uncertain what bearing that would have on the Army Corps' decision to issue a permit."
Fox noted that the NPS is allowed 10 business days to respond to the Army Corps' request to consult on the project.
“If the NPS fails to respond in that time period, the Army Corps will assume NPS in not interested in consulting and will move forward with its own review of the project and its other consultations with entities like the Rhode Island State Historic Preservation office and any affected tribal nations,” he said. “Unless the National Park Service has a strenuous opposition to the project, I believe that the project will obtain its federal permits in time for summer 2015 construction."
The plan calls for removing the dam and creating a new 70- to 90-foot wide river channel below it. Bids for the work are being sought this month and a contract should be awarded in early January, according to Comings.
White Rock would be the third dam on the Pawcatuck River earmarked either for removal or modification. The effort is designed to improve fish passage on the 20-mile waterway that stretches from Worden’s Pond in South Kingstown to Little Narragansett Bay. The work is expected to reduce flooding above the site.