Derry voters seek answers as they consider future of Williams Dam Vote to be held on Saturday during Town Meeting

About 70 people attend last week’s Special Select Board meeting on the future of Londonderry’s Williams Dam. Click any photo to launch gallery. All photos by Cynthia Prairie

By Cynthia Prairie
©2022 Telegraph Publishing LLC

LONDONDERRY

To a number of speakers at last Wednesday’s informational meeting on the future of the 1883 Williams Dam on the West River in Londonderry, the dam and the pond it creates at Route 11 and Route 100 north are a scenic, bucolic setting that attracts birds and other wildlife as well as tourists, and are important tools in keeping the town safe.

To those in favor of removing the dam – including the Select Board and the state, which recently rated it as a significant hazard — they see what lies beneath as trouble just waiting to happen.

Charles Johnston of the engineering firm DuBois & King explains the findings of his firm’s recent study.

About 70 people turned out for the Special Select Board meeting, held at Town Hall on Middletown Road, designed to give voters a chance to learn about the dam and why the town government was advocating for its removal.

This was in preparation for Town Meeting Day, to be held Saturday, April 30, when voters will make their views known on Article 22, which states: “Shall the town vote to raise and appropriate the sum of $40,000 for engineering costs for the removal of the Williams Dam.” You can read the entire warning here.

Before the meeting got under way, board chair Tom Cavanagh addressed questions about amending the article, which is an accepted practice during Town Meeting.

However, Cavanagh said that while the board intended to create an article that could be amended to include the repair or replacement of the dam, the way the article was written makes that impossible. Instead, voters will be able to either vote on the article as written or table the article for further discussion at a future meeting.

Fire Chief Jim Ameden explains the importance of the pond and the dry hydrant to his crew’s firefighting capabilities.

Leading the meeting was moderator Doug Friant, who also works as an EMT and was one of only a small handful of people wearing a mask.

Charles Johnston of Dubois & King, an engineering firm that studied the Williams River north of the pond, the pond, the dam and the surrounding area, presented his firm’s study in a 14-page full color handout, and discussed options for the dam and their various costs and outside funding possibilities. Those options and their costs included:

  • No action: $2,000.
  • Rehabilitation: $767,000 to $900,000, possibly some grant funding if the historic nature of the dam can be proved.
  • Replacement: $1.331 million, no outside funding.
  • Removal: $425,000, many grant options.

Also in attendance to answer questions were Marie Caduto, watershed coordinator with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Erin Rodgers of Trout Unlimited and Ron Rhodes of the the Connecticut River Conservancy.

Johnston told the audience that the dam is in very poor condition and is a “hazard” to public safety. He added that when the weather is dry, “you can see water seeping through the stones” of the dam. “If the dam is breached,” he said, “it would take about 10 minutes for the water to reach homes downstream.”

Jim Ameden, chief of the Phoenix Fire Company, one of two in town, stood to address the importance of the dry hydrant at the pond that his department had placed for firefighting. He called the the pond site hydrant “the most critical dry hydrant” among the seven it has and expressed concern that the loss of the pond would eliminate an important water source during an emergency.

Cynthia Gubb describes the beauty and wildlife she sees at the pond and adjacent wetlands.

Johnston then admitted that he had to change his view of the pond as too silted to offer enough water for the fire company to fill its tank after the company made a video of it drawing water through the dry hydrant about a week earlier.

Rhodes of the Connecticut River Conservancy said that his group, which has worked to eliminate more than 10 dams in Vermont, could include a dry hydrant as part of the Williams Dam removal project, which could mean sinking a dry hydrant into the West River.

But Ameden said it was easier to clear the pipe of silt from the pond than it would be stones and rock that would clog the hydrant within a river, which makes them high maintenance. “No fire departments are happy with river hydrants,” Ameden said.

Marie Caduto, of state Department of Environmental Conservation, explains what changes will be seen after a dam is removed.

Cynthia Gubb, who has lived next to the pond for at least 40 years, said “It’s one of the prettiest spots we have.” She then listed the variety of wildlife that she has seen there including muskrats, otter, heron and ducks and described the attraction that the dam is in its location next to Memorial Park, where the West River Farmers Market is held in the spring and summer.  “It’s an iconic part of our historical record … with a significant wetland behind it.”

The environmental and ecological benefits of keeping the dam, said Caduto, were “very limited. A dam transforms a river habitat into a lake.” Removing the dam, she added, would mean more sediment moving downstream. She also said the dam has blocked the trout population from moving upstream and harmed two native mussels.

Johnston also said that in their analysis dam removal would actually decrease flooding upstream of the bridge.

Bob Forbes recalled that the dam gate leaked more years ago than it does today and that it has been repaired.

Landowner Ed Brown says the problem isn’t the dam but the Utley Brook.

And Ed Brown, owner of the now defunct Mill Tavern and an empty building at Memorial Park called Squeaks House, contended that the dam wasn’t the cause of flooding, but that Utley Brook was the culprit and suggested changing it.

Caduto replied, “There is no way Utley Brook is going to be moved. … We aren’t going to change the natural flow of a stream. … We’re still facing the consequences of all the manipulations we did 150 years ago, like moving a river to give more farmland.”

Some people wanted to know what the area would look like without the dam. Johnston said it would become a large stream bed that will “decrease flooding upstream and have little impact downstream.”

Irwin Kuperberg asked about landscaping once the pond dam was taken out and the pond returned to a stream. Johnston said a native wetland grass mix would be planted while Caduto said the planting would be done quickly to put that vegetative buffer in place.

As for dredging the entire pond, Johnston said, “We didn’t look … we looked at what we could dredge to get the project constructed.” He said there is 950 cubic yards of sediment to be removed and likely 6,300 cubic yards of sediment would be moved should the dam be breached.

A resident asked Johnston if the state could mandate removal of the dam, to which he replied that “if the dam becomes a menace,” the state could step in.

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 40 years. Cynthia has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland, and has won numerous state awards for her reporting. As an editor, she has overseen her staffs to win many awards for indepth coverage. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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