Charles River Groups Urges Removing Watertown Dam, Protection for Private Trees

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Charlie Breitrose The Watertown Dam near Watertown Square slows the flow of the Charles River. A group is advocating removing the dam.

Members of the Charles River Watershed Association appeared before the City Council last week to state their case for removing the Watertown Dam, and also encouraged the City to take other steps for climate resilience, including expanding tree protection to those on private property.

Along with the recommendation to remove the Watertown Dam, CRWA Executive Director Emily Norton also recommended that the City: adopt a robust tree ordinance including considering protecting trees on private property, adopt a stormwater utility, and strengthen wetlands ordinance to better prepare and respond to climate change.

Dam Removal

The CRWA met with residents and officials a year ago during a tour of the Watertown Dam site. The dam is 56 years old and is in bad condition, according to the group’s presentation to the Council.

The concrete structure does not provide flood protection, and it prevents wildlife from getting up stream (including species of fish that cannot get up the fish ladder). It creates stagnant water where sediments piles up and bacteria can grow on one side, and the water that goes over the dam does so “unnaturally fast” and erodes the shoreline.

The dam is owned not by the City, but by the state, so CRWA’s main recommendation is for the Council to encourage the DCR (Massachusetts Department of Recreation of Conservation and Recreation) to remove it.

If it was removed, there would no longer be water rushing over the dam, but there would be the sound of water going over rocks in that area. The CRWA proposal also would call for the state to also rehabilitate the shore and plant native species along the edge.

Councilor John Gannon asked how long such a project would take. Norton said she estimates it would take five years from the state’s decision to remove the dam for it to be completed. Some other parts would take a little longer, but the change would be seen right after the structure is removed.

“The benefits would happen, for water quality and fish, happen immediately,” Norton said. “The (river) banks, a concern for us, planting would be part of it with native plants, usually happens within a year.”

City Council President Mark Sideris said he received a letter from the Watertown Conservation Commission asking for the appropriate City boards to discuss the removal of the Watertown Dam. He added with dam removal taking five years from decision he would like to start the conversation soon.

Tree Ordinance

A few communities in Massachusetts have added protection for trees not just on the street (public property) but also on privately owned property including back yards. Norton said this can be a challenge.

“(An ordinances) public trees, street trees protection and also trees on private property does get controversial when they further restrict what people can do on their property,” Norton said.

Protecting trees on private property is good for creating shade, as well as protection from storms because they soak up rainwater, she said.

“It is good for the entire community, especially areas that have more impervious cover,” Norton said, adding that Watertown has some of the most ratio of paved area of all communities in Massachusetts.

City Manager George Proakis is no stranger to tree ordinances which include privately-owned trees. He helped institute such a program in his previous position.

“We did it in Somerville,” said Proakis, who used to be Executive Director of the Office of Strategic Planning & Community Development in that city. “I hope to have a conversation with the Council about the learning experience I had in Somerville. Some things about it seemed to work, some things about it I wouldn’t do again.”

If the Council decides to pursue private tree protection, they will have to consider issues like how the ordinance would operate and who would enforce it, Proakis said.

“On the one hand the advocates are completely right that tree cover is an important part of our overall climate goal. On the other hand, operationally, a number of things that goes into it when a private homeowner makes a decision that they want to remove a tree, whether it be shade in a particular spot, or the age of the tree and circumstances related to it, or even they want to add a new addition to the house because they had a new baby and they need an extra bedroom,” he said. “We need to figure out how to manage all those things and balance those issues.”

In Somerville, Proakis said people could remove trees and either had to plant a tree or trees to replace it, or make a payment into a tree fund to plant trees elsewhere in the community. The goal was to maintain Somerville’s tree canopy.

10 thoughts on “Charles River Groups Urges Removing Watertown Dam, Protection for Private Trees

  1. Are we going to have a “tree census” (along with their locations, diameters, and heights) and check every property every year?

    It gets ridiculous and is unnecessary.

    Cost, bureaucracy, bossiness, and endless arguments.

    Moreover, there is no lack of trees. Look around.

    Someone tries to cut a tree or branch on their property and their next door neighbor calls the police. Is that what we want?

    This sentence is in the article: “We did it in Somerville,” said Proakis, who used to be Executive Director of the Office of Strategic Planning & Community Development in that city.

    Dear Mr. Proakis: This is not Somerville with its Leftist politics and bossy government.

    If you think the city you left, Somerville, is so wonderful, well, …

    But please don’t try to bring Somerville’s loopy policies into Watertown.

    What, there aren’t enough potholes to fix?

    You have to burden citizens with more rules they don’t want?

  2. Emily Norton points out that Watertown has one of the highest ratios of paved to unpaved surface among Massachusetts cities. As the climate grows warmer and wetter, this makes the considerable climate-tempering and stormwater absorption services that big shade trees provide extremely valuable to our city.

    We urgently need to find ways to slow the loss of healthy mature tree canopy in Watertown. Our city is committed to planting new trees, but Watertown neighborhoods are losing existing tree canopy much faster than it can be replaced. It takes many years for a tree to grow large enough to match the services that an existing big shade tree provides.

    A tree ordinance is an important part of the solution. As the comments in the article reflect, it is tricky to get it right, but at this point there are many cities and towns in our region whose experience instituting and carrying out tree ordinances Watertown can surely benefit from.

  3. In today’s negative climate it seems that we don’t want or need to create more tension. If people want or need to remove trees from their private property, there are usually very legitimate reasons to do so. I don’t think we need to have the City involved in this decision or create an opportunity for neighbors to squeal on people living next to them if these activities take place and they aren’t happy. That doesn’t make for good neighborhoods. The police have enough to do and to add to City staff to police the removal of trees seems like a big overreach of government and another expense that’s not needed.

    Encouraging people to plant trees is a good thing if they can put the right tree in the right place. Many of our older Norway Maple trees are getting too large for our typically small yards and create problems. From what I understand these are no longer considered to be desirable trees as they are invasive. To get these trees pruned regularly to remove branches that are overhanging houses or neighbors’ yards is very expensive.

    Manager Proakis mentioned at the District D meeting that he believes that trees are beneficial for the environment and tree canopies add a wonderful dimension to streets. He also said that he is in favor of providing more trees for residents to plant and would like to see them added to certain streets. He has learned from what Somerville did and seems to have a more moderate approach to tree issues. Also, people would need to water the new trees to keep them alive so public cooperation would be needed.

    If the City Tree Warden can provide guidance to individuals who want to put trees on their property as to what trees wouldn’t get too large and would be better choices for an area, that would be welcome.

    I would like to see us pursue the addition of trees where appropriate and let property owners make their own decisions as to what works on their private land. Let’s not allow government to take over more of our rights and create more division. We pay a lot for our houses and taxes and should have some say in what rules are put in place to govern us.

  4. Well once again “the tree rule on private property appears” I’m still waiting for the answer that someone with Trees for Watertown was looking into on the missing Bacon/Main St. trees. It was said they contacted the City, I haven’t heard of any answers being published here where it all began in another Post. So we all know how important the trees are, but then again who are you to regulate my property when not one person/persons involved with the removal of those trees has come forward with an answer . Yup “do as I say not as I do”

  5. There is plenty of open land in this general region.

    Plant more trees there and leave homeowners alone.

    Ultimately this is all about government forcing people to do things they don’t want or need to do.

    It’s Woke and socialist.

    America is a land of freedom, not compulsion.

    Many people don’t understand that and want to impose their own vision of society down to the slightest detail.

    Mr. Proakis, what about all those potholes?

  6. Some effects of climate change already are palpable, but the worst is still in the future. Warnings about climate change are predictions. Some people take them seriously, but a lot of people are likely indifferent to the quality of life in 2100, so they aren’t willing to take corrective action. Those who say “enough about climate change” should understand that air pollution is killing us now. There are practical reasons, why it may be easier to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the name of public health than in the name of climate change.

    Think about the power of a single tree to contribute to an individual’s daily life. A tree has the ability to provide an essential of life for all living things on the planet — oxygen — and the power to remove harmful gases like carbon dioxide making the air we breathe healthier. One large tree can provide a day’s supply of oxygen for up to four people. Trees also store carbon dioxide in their fibers helping to clean the air and reduce the negative effects this CO2 could have had on our environment. According to scientific data, in one year, a mature tree will absorb more than 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen in exchange.

    As things stand, cities around the world are looking to harness the power of trees. Increasingly people are recognizing that trees are beneficial, but getting the local ecosystem right is tricky. Experts know which tree species will perform well based on local conditions. Some trees are better air pollution cleaners than others. When choosing trees, residents and even planners have a tendency to think in terms of trees as objects rather than a complex ecological system. Tree planting to tackle pollution is like many other aspects of urban design. The key to success lies in municipal government giving property owners toolkits to help them with planting choices and discouraging them from removing trees. In addition, residents should be encouraged to take a proprietary interest in trees on public ways. Above all keep in mind that urban trees are literally a breath of fresh air.

    • I did not discourage the planting of more trees.

      In fact, I specifically said to *plant trees* if you read what I said above.

      Please read more carefully.

      • I read perfectly. You throw the “woke” and “socialist” labels at the government in this endeavor, which has zero basis in fact. Using language like this in the absence of any evidence to support your assertion is wrong.

  7. One main thing missing in “all the good things trees do” is the amount of time it takes for a tree to mature……..Decades, as compared to how little time it takes to drop one and dispose of, less than a day!

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