DCR Hosting Public Meeting About Future of Watertown Dam

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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.

The Mass. Department of Conservation and Recreation, DCR, will share its plans for studying the options for the future of Watertown Dam.

Recently, the DCR studied the area around the Dam as part of its Removal Alternatives Analysis to develop conceptual design alternatives for the Dam. Work included surveying and collecting borings.

A DCR spokesperson said the alternatives could include

  • Partial breach and lowering of the dam to a non-jurisdictional level
  • Full dam removal including restoration of the river through the project area

The Charles River Watershed Association has been calling for the removal of the Dam for a few years. In December 2022, the City Council wrote a letter to the DCR supporting the removal of the Watertown Dam.

The Charles River Watershed Association provided the following announcement:

Join the Watertown Dam Public Meeting on Tuesday, July 9th, from 7:15 – 8:45 PM in the Watertown Savings Bank Room (1st floor) at the Watertown Free Public Library, 123 Main St., Watertown, MA.

Join the Department of Conservation & Recreation (DCR) to learn about their study of options for the future of Watertown Dam. No registration is required.

3 thoughts on “DCR Hosting Public Meeting About Future of Watertown Dam

  1. Even as I start to write, I know the anti-dam campaign has been so well orchestrated that protests against removal are increasing ridiculed as uninformed and romanticized. But nonetheless, let it not come to pass that the dam will be blasted as if everyone agreed doing so makes perfect sense, not just to boaters, fishing enthusiasts, etc. but also to legally trained lobbyists with advanced degrees in watershed ecology.

    To me, these anti-dam movements make little sense other than for increasing the amount of free-flowing riverwater available for human recreational use. Arguments tend to refer to some idea of “returning” the river to its “natural state.” What is actually involved is changing an ecological system that has evolved and persisted for 400 years in order to become a more profitable stretch of human-accessible flowing water.

    Over those 4 ceneturies, animals, trees, and plant species have evolved as components of the existing ecology of the Charles — a very long period of time, which has increasingly included surviving drought, floods, freezing, and human riverside developments. What has not yet happened is a sudden, substantial change in depth, speed, current directions, along with drastic shifts in quantity, type, and quality of riverside natural growth– as will happen when the dam is condemned and blasted away..

    A similar damn-the-dam campaign has been mounted against a number of other stretches of the Charles and other N. Eng. rivers with pre-18th c. obstacles or dams. But few will be changed as dramatically as the stretch of the Charles from Waltham to Cambridge and beyond. Changed patterns of speed, momentun, and depth of the river’s waters inevitably mean a profound — and intended – change in the river’s econological life and function.

    All you have to do is remember what the gasping shore life looked like during the 2016-2017 drought to get just a hint of how things upriver of the dam might look permanently. The shore and waterbirds along with plants and trees long sustained by the local watertable would be much challenged to remain. Humans walking on the well-established and much-enjoyed DCR riverside walk will also experience a changed land configuration and set of river views. It will be a stretch to call certain areas “riverside.”

    The amount of money behind the anti-dam campaign has become increasingly obvious, especially if you look at the exceptionally well-funded and well-organized Charles River Watershed Association, who have targeted 18 other dams as threatening something about life along the Charles. They always provide extensive research about specific species of migratory fish in recent centuries, which must gratify those fish particularly but certainly the fishing groups who would like to catch them as well.

    Moreover, the ironic logic seems to be that these elderly dams threaten to fail and therefore should be removed. There are undoubtedly some dams about to crumble and not particularly effective where they are, anyway. But the Watertown Dam — which is not failing and is, indeed, an attraction for many in the area — seems to be the very top priority for the CRWA, suggesting perhaps something else about the real estate between Galen and Bridge Street is at stake.

    They claim to support “Restoring a free-flowing, resilient river.” But that’s just what we in Watertown are enjoying about our river now — or at least we were until riverside commercial development began to challenge access to it on both sides of the river. Just what is it they imagine will be improved between Galen and Bridge Streets that will justify the abrupt and comprehensive change if — correction, I am a realist — _when_ the dam is removed?

    Something quintessential about ’Water’town will disappear when the dam goes. What will happen to the overlook? Perhaps a boat-hitch for those working in the Pleasant Street laboratories?

    • You raise interesting questions, some of which have occurred to me as well. I am not a member of the CRWA, but I did volunteer to count fish at the dam this spring, and I have read most of their position papers on the subject. On the whole, I come down in favor of the dam’s removal.
      While it is described as being in “fair” condition, it is considered to have a “significant hazard potential” if it failed. Removing the dam would prevent major damage downstream in event of a failure, and would lower the water level upstream, also preventing potential flooding. For a structure with no practical purpose, that alone would argue for careful, planned removal; not “blasting”, as you write. They’ve done it before (I’ve seen the pictures); they seem to know how.
      Personally, I am most persuaded to remove the dam by the obstacle it creates to migratory fish. Having spent hours this spring at the top of the fish ladder waiting for the fish to pass, I have come to appreciate what an inadequate solution it is. A good number of them can’t make it past the structure–no female shad can–leaving them to spawn only in the stretch below the dam. While they are surviving, they’re hardly thriving. To herons and predatory gulls, plucking fish out of the rapids below the dam is like shooting them in a barrel. Eat your fill, feathered friends, but let’s make it a fair fight. As each stretch of the river is open to unimpeded migration, fish habitat grows and the health of the species improves. I can’t say how many members of the indigenous tribes still fish the river, but they, too, have argued for its removal.
      I have considered, as you have, what the removal of the dam would do to the ecosystem upstream, which has evolved over the centuries to its present state. It would look different; things would change. But the adaptation to a lower water level would be quicker than we might think. Again, they’ve done this before, and Nature adapts. As for the views, the river will still be there, where it’s always been. Its new banks and the protective flood plain will be teeming with life. I hope I have added a reasonable voice to the discussion.

  2. Four centuries does seem like a long time. But keep in mind the Charles River (“Quinobequin”) has been there for over 10K years… so anything that evolved with the river, evolved without the dam. As Josh Passell notes, we know the dam is harming native fish species, and it is also a public safety hazard. That is why CRWA and more importantly so many community leaders and residents of Watertown support restoring a free-flowing river in this location.

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