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Let the river run: Natick Select Board votes to remove historic dam

Drought conditions revealed parts of the river bed near the South Natick dam in July.Jillian Wilson Martin

The Natick Select Board voted 4-1 this week to remove the town’s historic dam on the Charles River, after inspectors in December found it to be in poor condition.

“To me, I see it as an opportunity to build more community, and to provide access to people that haven’t had access, wide access, to that water,” said Select Board Chair Paul R. Joseph moments before the vote was taken Wednesday night, according to a recording of the meeting.

In July, the Globe reported that Natick’s Charles River Dam Advisory Committee was poised to recommend the town remove its iconic dam, draining South Natick’s mill pond and letting that section of the river flow freely for the first time in nearly 90 years. The spillway was built in 1934.

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The most recent inspection of the dam, conducted by GZA GeoEnvironmental in December, found it to be in shoddy condition. Inspectors recommended replacing both the dam’s floodgates and removing 60 trees from the river banks, and other repairs, to bring it into compliance with Massachusetts law. The other option was to remove the spillway.

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.

“I don’t take lightly the fact that the climate is changing,” Joseph said during Wednesday’s meeting. “And the resilience of a river that’s not dammed is, by far, stronger than a river that is impeded by man-made structures. Again, to paraphrase a different environmentalist, ‘let the water go where it knows to go.’ And I think, in some ways, that’s what we’re facing right now.”

The sole member of the Select Board to vote against removing the dam was Michael J. Hickey Jr.

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“The right decision, I feel, is to repair this dam,” Hickey said before the vote. “Repair the structure, repair the spillway, whatever we’re calling the actual repair scope. ... The historical significance of this structure and this location is really important to me.”

It wasn’t immediately clear when the removal process will begin.

“This is the beginning of a long process,” Joseph said Wednesday. “And I encourage people to continue in the process.”

Spillway removal is expected to take more than two years to fully design, followed by nine months of construction, based on an analysis from Stantec.

The Charles River Dam Advisory Committee in a September report to the town recommended that officials take a number of steps in the event of dam removal, including further analysis of environmental impacts and development of mitigation measures; improving “navigability” in the changed river by engineering a deep channel; and creating riffles, which are rocky or shallow parts of a waterway, or other strategies to produce the sound of running water.

The committee recommended in addition that the town “invest in the redesign and future maintenance of adjacent public land, including Grove Park, the South Natick Dam Park, the Multipurpose Park, and area conservation land.”


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Daniel Kool can be reached at daniel.kool@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dekool01.