Metro, Newton

Newton Conservators Hosts Webinar Calling for Removal of Watertown Dam

Members of the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) advocated for the removal of the Watertown Dam on the Charles River, citing environmental and safety concerns, in a webinar hosted by Newton Conservators on Thursday. 

“Dams are really causing impacts to our wildlife and the health of our river,” Robert Kearns, CRWA’s Climate resilience specialist, said.

Dam structures on the Charles River have existed in part of Watertown since 1634, and have undergone further construction in the previous centuries. Currently, the dam has no power-generating or flood control functions, according to Newton Conservators.

“By the early 1900s, it was no longer being used as a power source to fuel any mills,” Lisa Kumpf, CRWA’s river science and restoration program manager, said during the webinar. “It transitioned into a passive dam.”

Kearns highlighted the environmental risks that the inactive dam poses, especially its threat to fish populations in the Charles River. Dams obstruct the passage of fish, which the CRWA says can lead to their increased predation.

The CRWA sees removal as the only worthwhile solution to the dam’s environmental issues. According to Kearns, other measures like fish ladders, which allow fish to pass through a dam, wouldn’t be worth their expense.

“The cost associated with that is very similar to just taking out the dam,” Kearns said.

Kumpf highlighted the fact that the Watertown Dam actually exacerbates the effects of floods in the area.

“When people see dam removal, they think of this big wave of water coming down and flooding downstream of the dam, and that’s actually what we’re trying to avoid with dam removal,” Kumpf said. “That is what happens when a dam is breached during a storm, and that is what the flood risk comes from that is associated with the current state of [the Watertown] dam.”

According to Kumpf, the dam also worsens the effects of drought, an increasing environmental concern as a result of climate change.

“In 2022, the major drought that we had left the area just downstream of the spillway dried out,” Kumpf said. “All of the water coming down the Charles was caught behind the spillway and barely any could get over it.”

The dam removal would cost the commonwealth $2,160,000, according to a 2021 Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration study. This expense includes the costs of design, construction, and proper removal of toxic sediments within the dam, the study states.

“The cost estimate was around $2.1 million, which is really on par with a lot of other dams and even less expensive than a lot of dam removals in the area,” Kumpf said.

According to Kumpf, funding for the dam removal could come through National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grants or other federal grants associated with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

“This [project] would be pretty competitive because it is on a historic river, as a first major barrier of fish passage,” Kumpf said.

CRWA says it has made progress in its mission to remove the dam. Watertown city councilors have voted unanimously to support its removal, and the project has gained coverage from several media outlets, including The Boston Globe.

There is still work to be done, as the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), a state agency, is the owner of the dam and the body with the power to remove it, participants in the webinar said. The DCR has yet to approve the project.

“Let your friends know, let your family members know, talk about it at the grocery store or church or wherever you’re going,” Kearns said. “Let people know about this project and how it’s an exciting and transformational opportunity.”

October 1, 2023