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Leeds dam dismantled after years of planning

  • Peter Parsons watches as the portions of the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam are removed letting the water out on Wednesday June 6 2018. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Wayne Thibault, right, talks to Phil Dowling while watching the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam as it was being taken down Wednesday in Leeds. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • An employee of SumCo checks the level of the water above the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam as the water flows over the dam as it was being taken down on Wednesday June 6 2018. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • The water levels lowers at the pond off Chesterfield Road created by the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam as SumCo took out a portion of the dam letting the water out on Wednesday June 6 2018. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • The water levels lowers at the pond off Chesterfield Road created by the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam as SumCo took out a portion of the dam letting the water out on Wednesday June 6 2018. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rebecca Pratt, an employee, of SumCo watches a marker measuring the level of the stream beneath the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam as portions of the dam are removed and the water flowed out on Wednesday June 6 2018. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Employees of SumCo watch a marker measuring the level of the stream beneath the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam as portions are removed and the water flowed out on Wednesday June 6 2018. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • A marker measuring the level of the stream beneath the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam as portions of the dam are removed and the water flowed out on Wednesday June 6 2018. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • A stream is all that's left of pond off Chesterfield Road created by the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam as SumCo took out a portion of the dam letting the water out on Wednesday June 6 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The pond off Chesterfield Road created by the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam is shown before, above, and after, right, workers started taking down the dam and letting the water out, Wednesday, in Leeds. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Workers take out portions of the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam and let the water out on Wednesday in Leeds. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Workers take out portions of Upper Roberts Meadow Dam and let the water out on Wednesday June 6 2018.

  • Workers take out portions of Upper Roberts Meadow Dam and let the water out on Wednesday June 6 2018.

  • Workers take out portions of Upper Roberts Meadow Dam and let the water out on Wednesday June 6 2018.

  • Workers take out portions of Upper Roberts Meadow Dam and let the water out on Wednesday June 6 2018.

  • Workers take out portions of Upper Roberts Meadow Dam and let the water out on Wednesday June 6 2018.

  • Workers take out portions of Upper Roberts Meadow Dam and let the water out on Wednesday June 6 2018.



@dustyc123
Wednesday, June 06, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — After years of planning and delays, a crew of neon-clad workers began tearing down the 19th-century Upper Roberts Meadow Dam on Wednesday morning, using an excavator to remove a small section as water rushed over top.

The city has been planning to tear down the 135-year-old dam since 2011, when the Board of Public Works voted to remove it following a declaration from the state Office of Dam Safety that the structure was a “high hazard” to life, property or infrastructure. Implementing that decision — which was opposed by a group of residents who wanted to preserve the dam — has meant years of permitting and planning hurdles that have now been completed.

“We’re very pleased with how the project is proceeding so far,” Department of Public Works Director Donna LaScaleia said Wednesday afternoon, adding that the project will be ecologically beneficial to the area. “What we’re doing is restoring the original stream channel.”

In February, the city received a $25,000 state grant to help with the dam’s removal as part of an effort to aid municipalities wanting to restore rivers to their natural state. That, in addition to a $633,996 grant out of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, will fund most of the dam removal. The remaining $191,000 or so of an estimated $850,000 total cost will be funded through the city’s water enterprise fund.

Workers from SumCo Eco-Contracting of Peabody were on site Wednesday to begin creating a notch 10 feet wide and 5 feet deep in the top of the dam using an excavator, according to LaScaleia. That allows for a controlled release of water, which LaScaleia said the contractor would monitor to ensure that a safe level of water and sediment is flowing downstream.

Not everyone is happy with the decision to remove the dam, however. For years, a neighborhood group led efforts to save the dam for aesthetic, environmental and possible hydropower reasons.

“It was unnecessary to remove this dam,” Wayne Thibault said at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, watching as a large portion of the upper reservoir had already drained after just an hour of work. “It’s going to change everything for the otter, the birds, the wildlife.”

The dam was built in 1883, and the reservoir behind it served as a primary source of drinking water in Northampton until 1905 when Haydenville’s Mountain Street reservoir was built. A few miles upstream from Musante Beach in Leeds, the 6-acre pond supported a diverse mix of wildlife — everything from river otter to blue heron.

Proponents of the dam removal say that in addition to improving public safety, the project will support the cold-water brook trout population and other wildlife. Critics, however, have been skeptical of those claims.

Thibault, who has lived across the street from the upper reservoir on Chesterfield Road since 1970, has helped lead the Friends of the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam group since first learning about the dam removal when workers showed up without warning across from his house. He argued that there wasn’t enough water capacity behind the dam to cause significant danger, and that only trout would benefit from the dam’s removal.

What’s more, Thibault argued, because the other two dams on the brook — at the lower Roberts Meadow Reservoir and Musante Beach — aren’t being removed, it won’t truly open the brook for fish to freely move.

“We went through countless hearings,” Thibault said of his group’s efforts arguing that the city should preserve the historic dam.

Don Graham, 50, grew up in the area, and had ridden his bike down the road Wednesday to see what was going to happen when the dam deconstruction began. He was taking a video on his cellphone.

“I actually kayaked it three years ago when I heard they were going to do this,” Graham said of the reservoir with a mischievous smile. He said he always enjoyed the ducks, deer and other fauna that came to the reservoir, and was disappointed to learn the dam would be torn down. “I don’t see the reason for it.”

But Graham and Thibault were witnessing the end of an era on Wednesday. The two joined several others watching as bubbles and an earthy stench rose from where the upper reservoir had been just an hour before. There was now a large muddy patch in the center of the area, with a brook clearly starting to take shape along the south side of the reservoir, moving slowly toward the partially deconstructed dam.

Farther downstream, the brook was flowing strongly yet calmly under the small bridge at Kennedy Road, where workers were monitoring a metal measuring-stick dug into the brook’s bed to see how much the water had risen once the notch was completed — 1.5 feet at around 10:30 a.m., they said.

“There has been meticulous planning and permitting the city has engaged in to make this project possible,” LaScaleia said. “We are meeting all permit requirements.”

When asked about critics’ concerns, LaScaleia again reiterated the lengthy process the city had gone through to plan and permit the project. She said the project will ultimately restore habitats for cold-water fish above the middle reservoir downstream, and will redeposit ecologically beneficial sediment in the channel downstream, which she said has been designated as “sediment starved.”

The sediment buildup behind the upper dam has been a concern, with substantial planning needed to ensure that it doesn’t impede water flow downstream. Previously, concerns have also been raised about the possibility of finding contaminants in the sediment, potentially triggering additional studies and higher off-site disposal costs.

LaScaleia said the project’s permitting allows for the flow of sediment downstream, and that workers will continue to monitor water and sediment levels as water is slowly released over time from behind the dam. They will also keep an eye on events in the future when heavy rains come, she said.

As for a timetable for completion, that depends on environmental factors, including the weather, LaScaleia said. The workers will wait until the water flow slows from the current notch in the damn, and then will dig another notch. LaScaleia said she expects the dam to be fully removed by the end of the calendar year.

“These things take time, and we’ve done our due diligence,” she said. “This has definitely been many years in the making.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.