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Natick - Local Town Pages

What’s next for Natick’s historic dam?

By Sean Sullivan
Four of a five-member Select Board voted in November to remove the structure, a milestone moment in a process that’s been considered and contentious.   
For those who have favored repairing and keeping the dam, a certain cultural currency is considered among the cost of removing it. The dam has historical value, they argue, has served as a cornerstone for the town for decades.
The controversial process and product will be a likely preview of battles to come - ones wherein towns, cities, states and countries will have to make some tough decisions in the context of increasingly-salient climate change.
As storms become more frequent and fierce, the south Natick spillway has come under more scrutiny, especially from the state. Massachusetts regulators had designated the dam as high risk in terms of potential failure, an event that could threaten the safety of people and property.
Built during the Great Depression, the structure is approaching its centennial, and showing its age.  


You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone, goes the refrain. It’s a wise truism to keep in mind when contemplating decisions of consequence. It’s a thought experiment of sorts, one that forces the decision-maker to imagine unconsidered outcomes that may develop downstream.
That sentiment is echoed on, a site founded and maintained to advocate for retaining the structure as a fixture of the town.
Yet for many residents, the dam deliberations of late have been an opportunity to learn about the spillway before it’s gone. That education has come in the form of structural and environmental inquiries that have sought to inform policymakers and the public about the implications of the dam’s future - stay or nay.
These studies have trained a spotlight on how the dam may be detrimental to wildlife, the natural flow and lifecycle of the river, the consequences should the dam fail. The Select Board’s recent vote sets in motion a robust series of further studies, ones greater in depth and breadth that its chair Paul Joseph said would bear on the structure’s future.
The vote also served as an answer to Massachusetts authorities, bodies that had been awaiting an official response since they designated the dam as high risk. 
Part of what guided the board’s deliberations is cost. Repairing the dam would come with a significant price tag, and involve the expense of maintenance in perpetuity. A repaired dam, furthermore, would come with no guarantee of resilience against failure and floods. Removing the dam, while certainly not free, would be a one-and-done affair.
Those who favor retaining the dam cite its aesthetic attributes and cultural value. In contrast, advocates for removal have put forward plans of what the river might look like, restored to some semblance of its former self. A redesigned riverside park is among the potential points of interest in those early plans.
“There are a lot of options in front of us,” said Joseph. “We could always convene and make a different decision,” if salient facts come to light.
Some residents have asked why the issue wasn’t put to voters in the form of a ballot measure. For the dam to be or not to be, answered Joseph, was too complex a question in its implications to be offered in a ballot measure.
“Essentially, water will find its natural level. What we’re going to end up with in five or ten years is still to be determined.”