Natick resident Brad Peterson is afraid of what will happen to an iconic and “majestic” part of town if officials decide to remove a 90-year-old dam.

“It will look like every other part of the Charles River that’s now downstream of the dam. And that’s mostly a shallow, slow-moving, muddy creek,” he said at a recent committee meeting to consider the future of the dam.

Peterson appears to be part of an increasingly vocal minority as the decision looms on whether to repair or remove the “high hazard” dam at the end of July. Signs and a petition have begun circulating to “Save Natick Dam” in recent weeks. But many in town worry more about the environmental and financial impacts if the structure stays — and the fact that its very existence is an affront to the local Nipmuc Indian Development Council.

With new federal funds for infrastructure, the rising risks posed by climate change and the fact that many of Massachusetts’ 3,000 dams have simply outlived their original purposes, environmental advocates say the time has come to get rid of dams and restore free-flowing rivers.

What is Natick debating?

In Natick, a small committee has held nearly a dozen meetings over the last year, hearing from experts on safety, ecology, recreation and cultural history, and people whose property abuts the dam. At the end of July, they will vote on whether to remove or repair the spillway — the manmade structure the river spills over when it rushes downstream. Removing it would effectively get rid of Natick’s dam, which technically includes the pine tree–covered earthen embankment that sits next to the spillway.

Taking down the spillway is the cheaper option upfront. It would cost $2.6 million to repair the dam — replacing the fish ladder, removing dozens of pine trees that sit on top of the embankment and making repairs to the spillway itself. Removing the spillway would cost $1.5 million. Plus, getting rid of the structure eliminates future maintenance costs and potential liability if the dam were to fail.

Nipmuc representatives on the committee argue for letting the river flow undammed. And removing the structure would set the Charles River on a path of ecological restoration, establishing an uninterrupted 26 miles between dams.

But it would be a major change to what one committee member described as “without a doubt, the most photographed site in Natick.”

If the spillway were to stay, dozens of pine trees on top of the embankment would have to be taken down in order to comply with the state’s “Trees on Dams” policy. But it would also preserve the mill pond that’s created by the dam and maintain the recreation, aesthetics and sound of rushing water.

A green and white sign reads "Sign our Petition! Choose Repair not Removal" next to the sidewalk and road
Lawn signs populate the yards of many houses near the South Natick Dam. A sign sticks out in front of a Pleasant Street house, photographed on Wednesday, July 6, 2022.
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As Natick’s town engineer, legal and financial risk is on Bill McDowell’s mind. Given the changing climate, he worries that a significant weather event could overwhelm the dam. Natick’s dam is designated as “high hazard,” and the town estimates almost 150 properties worth nearly $600 million could be inundated if the dam breaks.

“Whatever happens downstream happens,” McDowell said. “And then the lawsuits come in and we’re liable.”

Several industrial dams came and went in the Natick area in the 18th and 19th centuries as the town’s population boomed. But the dam that remains was never built for a “concrete purpose,” explained Charlotte Diamant, who compiled the dam’s history while she was a student at Wellesley College.

“Its primary aim was beautification and to create that mill pond, where people could swim and fish and sunbathe and to create, kind of, this scenic area,” Diamant said.

For many residents, there are personal sentimental points to consider that don’t fit neatly on a pros-and-cons list. One person who sat on the committee had his first date with his wife there; another committee member proposed at the same spot.

"Economically it's more valuable to remove the spillway. But people are still wanting to keep it."
Kristen Wyman, dam committee member

But all along, local Nipmuc people have opposed the damming. Kristen Wyman, who is Natick Nipmuc and sits on the dam committee, traced the opposition back three centuries to damming the Quinobequin, the name Indigenous people use for the river.

“There’s a little bit of pain and frustration that somehow the environment and the needs of the river still aren’t being prioritized,” Wyman said. “It was put there to maintain a booming settler population at the expense of the Native people and the food sources that we relied on.”

Many members of the committee said Wyman’s presentation offered the most compelling reasons to remove the spillway that they’d heard in the yearlong process.

“What got us into this situation in the first place is the generations before thinking, ‘It’s a multifaceted issue, and we’ve got to prioritize the desire of the people and the economic needs,’” Wyman said. “In fact, actually, you know, we’re learning economically it’s more valuable to remove the spillway. But people are still wanting to keep it.”

What stands in the way of dam removal?

Public opposition can be a major obstacle, particularly for dams owned by towns that take input from their citizens rather than private owners who, experts say, are more easily swayed by the risks of keeping them.

Dozens of people gathered for a public tour of the South Natick Dam, led by Robert Kearns and Charlotte Diamant through the Charles River Watershed Association, on Sunday, May 1, 2022.
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Emily Norton, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, said it often comes down to people simply not knowing that dams divide fish populations and can create a safety hazard. It’s a hurdle in her group’s efforts to remove some of the 19 dams on the Charles River, many of which were built for flood control or industrial power centuries ago.

“Most of the dams still remaining on the Charles, including the Natick dam, are no longer serving these functions,” Norton said. “All they’re doing now is harming the health of the river and the animals and the plants that rely on it.”

Dams degrade water quality, produce methane emissions, warm the water, increase the risk for harmful algae blooms and, despite the invention of fish ladders, largely block fish passage. What were once drinking water reservoirs, or important methods of flood control or energy production, are now vestiges: Less than 10% of Massachusetts’ dams have such a purpose, according to the river restoration nonprofit American Rivers.

“Where there’s a dam that’s not serving a purpose anymore, that we should remove it,” Norton said. “Particularly because, like a lot of infrastructure in the commonwealth, many of these dams are not being maintained.”

The Natick dam is like a hundred other dams in Massachusetts, according to a 2011 state audit. They’re owned by towns, they’re in poor or unsafe condition — and if they fail, they could cause loss of life or major property damage.

There have been 67 dam removals in Massachusetts since 1999, accelerating in recent years. Removal remains an uncommon feat, but those dozens of projects offer Nick Wildman and his colleagues at the state’s Division of Ecological Restoration a stack of case studies when they consult with towns.

“It’s not a big mystery,” Wildman said. “These changes, and the benefits, are all predictable.”

Within hours of a dam being removed, he said, fish begin to travel upstream again. Within days or weeks, vegetation begins to sprout on the newly exposed banks, quickly taking over the earth that’s suddenly out in the open. And after two or three years, the river will settle into a new channel, forming and shaping the banks.

Next steps

Barriers to dam removal eased with more federal funding and, perhaps, a changing public opinion. Other dams in Southampton, Norwood and Ipswich are on their way to being taken down.

The infrastructure bill signed last year includes roughly $7 billion that could be tapped to remove dams, and there are other pools of money at the state level, which creates what Norton calls a “great opportunity” to take action. Many grants are available for dam removal; fewer exist for repair.

A vote in Natick is just weeks away, but experts say it’ll be at least three years before any changes are made to the dam. The committee makes its recommendation to the Select Board, which will likely go forward with a decision in the fall and embark on the long process of permitting, construction and sourcing the millions of dollars it will take to make the project happen either way.

Even for towns that keep and repair their dams, as Natick could opt to do, it’s never a permanently settled matter.

“I can’t anticipate that whatever I do as far as a repair would last any better than the original installation,” McDowell said. “So this is 90 years old — figure, 75 to 90 years, we’ll be revisiting this.”

Water rushes over the spillway in the background from behind a bench on top of the earthen dam
Water rushes over the spillway on July 6, 2022.
Hannah Reale GBH News