The defunct Potter Hill Dam stands as the last remaining obstacle to fish passage on the Pawcatuck River, blocking species like river herring, American shad, and American eel from traveling upriver and spawning within the ponds and streams of Wood-Pawcatuck Rivers Watershed. 

The grant application before the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is currently in the pre-proposal phase. If approved, it would help fund public outreach and a feasibility study to look into potential options for improving fish passage, such as significant alterations to the existing structure or dam removal.

Over the past two decades, public and private entities have worked to restore critical fish passage within the river system, spending millions of dollars on new fish ladders and removing existing dams, including the Bradford Dam upriver from Potter Hill and the White Rock Dam further south toward downtown Westerly.

The 8-foot high Potter Hill Dam is outfitted with a fish ladder that was installed in the 1970s, but today the technology is outdated and ineffective.

“The fish ladder doesn’t really work that well,” Westerly Conservation Commission Chairman Joe MacAndrew said recently, standing feet from the dam on the Hopkinton side of the Pawcatuck River. “It’d be a lot better if the dam was removed for the fish, because it’d just give them a lot better flow and a lot better access to the river.”

MacAndrew said he also worries the more than 100-year-old dam poses a threat to infrastructure downriver. He said there’s a possibility it could collapse in a worst case scenario, potentially sweeping dead trees and other debris into the river and knocking down a bridge that was already structurally compromised during the 2010 floods. 

Wood-Pawcatuck Association Executive Director Chris Fox said the possibility of a dam collapse is a potential concern, but he considers it by no means imminent.

Fox said he favors a complete removal of the dam, but he’d like to see a feasibility study conducted to know what other potential remedies exist. 

He said addressing the dam and restoring passage all the way up to the start of the Pawcatuck River at Worden Pond could ultimately have a positive impact on commercial ocean fishing up and down the Northeast. Smaller fish that spawn in the watershed and live in ocean waters could reproduce more, he said, and provide food for larger species. 

“The more habitat we can provide them or, I should say, restore to them, the more ability they have to rebound in their numbers to provide the forage for other species of saltwater fish that rely on them as their main food source,” Fox said in an interview at the association’s offices in Hope Valley.

The NOAA grant application is the latest chapter in a longstanding effort to address concerns at the site of the old Potter Hill Mill, which for years has posed a safety and environmental concern to the town of Westerly.

If the dam is not addressed, Fox said he foresees a possible situation in which the naturally-meandering Pawcatuck River could begin to flow to the left of the dam and into the crumbling mill structure, picking up industrial debris and contaminants from the mill and forcing them out into the river.

The owner of the mill and dam has submitted a letter of support for the grant application to study options for restoring fish passage at the structure.

In its application to NOAA, the town of Westerly says it is seeking $100,000 in federal funding that will be matched by local, state and non-profit monetary support or in-kind contributions of technical services and other assistance. 

If the proposal makes it to the next round of the NOAA application process, the town will submit a final proposal by April and potentially receive funding by Fall 2020.

Last year, the Wood-Pawcatuck Rivers Watershed was named a National Wild and Scenic river system, making it the first and only Rhode Island watershed to receive that designation. The milestone provides stricter protections of the watershed and opens up more opportunities for federal funding.

According to the Wood Pawcatuck Watershed Association, the river system encompasses 300 square miles in Southern Rhode Island and Connecticut, and includes the Queen, Wood, Chickasheen, Chipuxet, Shunock, Green Falls, and Pawcatuck Rivers. 

This story was reported through The Public’s Radio’s new South County Bureau, which opened early this year and will eventually be located at The United Theater arts, performance and community space currently being renovated in historic downtown Westerly.