Natick’s Charles River Dam Advisory Committee is expected to recommend that the town remove its historic dam, draining South Natick’s mill pond and letting that section of the river flow freely for the first time in nearly a century.
The recommendation would signal the end to more than a year of debate over what to do with the spillway, first built in 1934.
The most recent inspection of the dam, conducted by GZA GeoEnvironmental in December, found it to be in poor condition. Inspectors recommended replacing both the dam’s floodgates and removing 60 trees from the river banks, among other repairs, to bring it into compliance with Massachusetts law — that, or removing the spillway entirely.
“We lose either way,” said committee member David Blease, whose home overlooks the river. “But there’s at least a chance a chance of having something beautiful, something different, if we repair the river [and] remove the spillway.”
Blease was among 15 of the committee’s 18 members to voice support for removing the spillway at a Tuesday evening meeting. He said any plan for the dam would need to include steps to ensure the area remains useful and beautiful as a public park.
Others cited Native American ties to the river, concerns over flooding if the dam were to break, the cost of repairs and ongoing maintenance, and the impact of the dam on water levels downstream — especially as the state faces higher temperatures and more significant droughts resulting from climate change.
Two members — David Lodding and Martin Kessel — said they wanted to repair the dam, and one was absent from deliberations.
Lodding said he was concerned by estimates that, without the dam, water levels could fall by 3 to 5 feet in some parts of the river, leaving an average of about a foot of water between the spillway and the footbridge upstream.
“I’m worried about people more than about the environment,” he said at Tuesday’s meeting. “If we remove the spillway, we’re going to devastate the recreational potential, at least as far as boating.”
Repairs would cost between $1.8 million and $2.2 million, according to the December inspection report.
Removing the spillway is predicted to cost around $1.5 million, according Stantec, a design firm hired by Natick to inspect the waterway. But Robert Kearns, climate resilience specialist at the Charles River Watershed Association, said that figure could be offset by grants from the state and federal governments.
Kearns said removing the spillway would “drastically improve” the overall health of the Charles by allowing native fish to travel upstream, increasing dissolved oxygen, and limiting thermal pollution that results from higher water temperatures in the pond.
He pushed back against the idea that the mill pond now hosts an established ecosystem, as some residents have argued.
“This dam has been here around 100 years, but in the life of a river, that’s sort of a blip,” Kearns said. “This river is thousands of years old, and the plants and the wildlife have evolved over thousands of years for a free-flowing river.”
Kristen Wyman, a committee member and a member of the Nipmuc tribe, said the river has a sacred value to local indigenous communities, which have long opposed the existence of the South Natick Dam.
“It doesn’t come down to what I want, personally,” Wyman told fellow committee members Tuesday. “All of our teachings indicate that human beings are not necessarily at the center of these systems, that we have a responsibility to maintain and care for [them], so that we can be provided for. And I’m going to stick to that principle.”
In March, the interfaith Natick Religious Leaders Association released a statement supporting removal of the dam, citing the Charles’ “profound” cultural and spiritual significance to the Nipmuc community.
Ken Van Blarcom, 71, an antiques appraiser and dealer whose home and office on Eliot Street overlooks the river, said returning the Charles to its natural state is “a great idea in theory,” but unrealistic given the other dams on the river. “They’re not all going away,” he said.
Van Blarcom said the dam has been a icon of Natick since it was built and continues to draw outsiders in with its “picturesque” beauty.
“What you’re going to have not only is a very shallow, slow moving part of the river,” Van Blarcom said, “but a scar.”
Still, he said he sympathizes with residents across town, who don’t see the river every day and are more concerned with town spending than someone else’s view.
The dam advisory committee will meet again July 26 to begin drafting a formal recommendation for the Natick Select Board, which has final say over the dam. If accepted by the board, any required funding would then need to be voted on during a town meeting.
Spillway removal is expected to take more than two years to fully design and permit, followed by nine months of construction, based on an analysis presented to the committee in June by Stantec.
As Tuesday’s meeting — and with it, months of debate — came to a close, committee member Christopher Stillman thanked Natick residents for their engagement in the decision and said he hoped they felt heard.
“We did this as a community,” he said. “When we move forward, we have something that we can look back on and say ‘This is where a beautiful river started.’”