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From fish ladders to demolition: Five potential fixes for West Street Dam

Longstanding issues with the Ashuelot River’s West Street Dam in Keene were met with new-age solutions Tuesday night at the city’s recreation center.

A team of six researchers and graduate students from the Rhode Island School of Design drove up from Providence to present community members with five potential fixes to the dam, which the state has deemed deficient.

The RISD team’s work is part of a wider, National Science Foundation-funded project. The researchers are operating solely in an advisory capacity, Keene Public Works Director Kurt D. Blomquist said, adding that the placeholder for any work to begin is 2024.

“It’s not something that’s going to happen next week,” Blomquist said at the outset of the presentation.

The forum also included small group sessions and surveys, which the RISD team will incorporate into a broader study.

The Future of Dams project, a multi-state, interdisciplinary research initiative, uses the responses to develop new decision-making methods for dam issues in the Elm City and other New England communities.

The roughly two-dozen attendees Tuesday were dispersed among color-coded tables, with a RISD representative recording their responses to oral and written questions at various points between phases of the presentation.

At the orange table, Peter Hansel, co-owner of Filtrine Manufacturing Co. in Keene, sat with Charles DeCurtis, a Concord-based freshwater manager, and Jim Rousmaniere, a Roxbury selectman who recently wrote a book called “Water Connections: What fresh water means to us; what we mean to water.”

DeCurtis drove from the capital out of an interest in RISD’s approach, while Rousmaniere said his primary concerns going into the evening were around preserving the historical character of the dam.

Hansel said he was of “two minds” on the issue: weighing the historical importance of the dam with a desire to see fish be able to migrate upstream in a potential fix.

All three men also agreed that the upstream and downstream ecosystems are important to them, with wetlands and other ecosystems currently relying on the dam as is.

Anchoring the orange table was Sheri Fultineer, dean of the architecture and design program at RISD.

As Fultineer steered the group discussion in between slides, Emily Volger, director of the landscape architecture department, presented the five options.

Each of the proposals, with the exception of removing it entirely, would fix the current issues with the dam that led it to be deemed deficient.

Repair the dam

Volger started with the most basic of the options.

Sealing off seepage on the sides of the dam, along with restoring the upstream dike to its original configuration, are the main priorities at the base of any fixes to the West Street Dam — aside from removing it altogether — Volger said.

Blomquist and Tara Kessler, a senior planner in the city’s community development department, gave a brief overview of the history of the dam, which the N.H. Department of Environmental Services declared deficient in letters in 2008 and 2011.

Projections for repair costs have ranged from $425,000 to $450,000, while removing the dam is estimated between $300,000 and $360,000, according to figures previously provided by the city.

Volger noted that while there would be long-term costs in maintaining the dam, this option would be cheaper than any of the other proposals, aside from removing it altogether.

Fish ladder

While the West Street Dam is not tall enough to warrant a fish lift — essentially an elevator in the form of a canal lock enclosure that closes shut and brings water to the top of a dam before releasing the fish upstream — one option for restoring the dam is to implement a fish ladder.

Fish are unable to migrate beyond the West Street Dam, but before it was installed, diadromous fish — such as the American shad — were able to move to and from saltwater through the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound.

Shad can spend up to four or five years of their adult lives in the Atlantic Ocean before coming back to freshwater rivers to spawn. The long-term impacts of dams on the populations of fish and aquatic foodchains are unknown, but scientists estimate that the disappearance of diadromous fish from ecosystems poses long-term threats to the survival of other species, including mammals such as manatees and dolphins.

Volger showed a design with a concrete slab tacked onto the side of the dam, with gradually inclining pools that would allow fish to jump up to the next level and, eventually, clear the dam and continue their journey.

The structure would add expense to the project, with a comparable one in Durham costing $1.9 million, according to a slide shown by Volger.

And only about 30 to 50 percent of the critters would end up finding the ladder and clearing the dam, Volger said.

‘Nature-like fishway’

One of the more popular options of the night, a “nature-like fishway” has the same premise as a fish ladder or elevator, but is much more elaborate in scope and would change the visibility of the dam.

By placing rocks, logs or other objects in rows slowly ramping up to the dam, the fishway would create resting pools that could be easily vaulted upstream.

Volger added that when the river is flowing more fervently, people would be able to kayak over the dam, which would disappear beneath the rapids.

Without relying on a narrow passageway, this option tends to have a 60 to 70 percent passage rate, Volger said.

One 5-foot dam Volger showed cost $1.14 million to be fitted with a fishway.

However, with the slowly increasing levels of the resting pools, the dam’s peak and waterfall would fall out of view, as would its historical character.

Bypass channel

Another way to bring fish migration back to the Ashuelot River could come in a bypass channel — essentially a new, concrete-reinforced creek that would cut through a marshy island behind the Starbucks in Ashuelot River Park.

This option — the most costly of the five — would preserve the historical character of the dam as well as the upstream wetlands while allowing fish to move through.

However, Volger noted that along with the intensive construction costs of regrading the soil to make way for the man-made creek, at 30 to 50 percent, the passage rate for the bypass channel is no better than the fish ladder and worse than the fishway.

The placement of the bypass channel would also be a challenge, Volger said, because of how hard it would be for the fish to find and for it to be placed in a way that would allow for enough flow to bring them through.

Another complication would be grading the bypass so as not to defeat the purpose of the dam, which would essentially involve the same kind of step-up pools entailed in the fish ladder and fishway.

Torpedo the dam

Getting rid of the dam is not only the cheapest option, but also the most fraught with variables, Volger and Blomquist said.

There would be no long-term costs, since there would be nothing to maintain, and the future coexistence of fish and humans would be natural, Volger said.

However, Blomquist noted that the city has never conducted a study on the sediment held upstream from the dam, and it is uncertain how much the water levels would change post-dam, affecting wildlife up and down the rivershed.

Historic character could still be preserved, with the buttresses on each side of the shore potentially staying in place.

By the end of the session, Rousmaniere went from valuing the dam’s preservation in its historical state to advocating for its removal altogether, as long as the buttresses remain.

Although other variables, such as the long-term cost and potential impact to the wetlands, still weighed on his mind, Rousmaniere said he was taken by the ability of his peers and the RISD experts to change his opinion.

“Even when you do live here,” Rousmaniere said to DeCurtis, “hearing everybody here makes it all the more complicated.”


Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff 

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff

Bob Seaman of Keene advises fellow artist Molly Fletcher as she adds some color to Seaman’s temporary mural that was added to a Main Street alley Thursday. Seaman is a past Ruth and James Ewing Arts Award Lifetime Achievement winner.


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After military sash go-ahead, Keene school board mulls formal graduation-attire policy

Days after the superintendent gave the go-ahead for students to wear military sashes during Keene High School’s commencement ceremony this year, the Keene Board of Education laid plans Tuesday to begin crafting a formal district policy on graduation attire.

The issue gained traction on social media early last week after a group of military-bound students created an online petition asking the high school to permit the sashes, which represent the branch of service each student has opted to join. More than 3,500 people signed the petition on Change.org.

Clarice Davis, 17, of Lempster said she and other graduating seniors were told by Principal James F. Logan that the sashes, which they received from their recruiters, are not related to a school activity and would be distracting to other students.

Logan was not reachable by phone or email for comment early last week.

By law, Granite State schools must allow graduates who have completed boot camp to wear a military dress uniform for their high school commencement ceremony. The legislation, signed by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan in 2016, was named for Brandon Garabrant of Greenfield, who was not permitted to wear his Marine dress uniform at his graduation from ConVal Regional High School in Peterborough in 2013.

Garabrant was killed about a year later, in June 2014, when the tank he was in was hit by a roadside bomb in the southern Helman province of Afghanistan. He was 19.

N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 Superintendent Robert H. Malay told The Sentinel that allowing the military sashes would raise the question of whether regalia from other outside entities, such as religious groups, colleges and community organizations, must also be permitted.

Malay said students have traditionally been allowed to wear cords for school-related accomplishments and have also been allowed to decorate their caps for the past two years.

After meeting with Davis last week, Malay said Friday that he decided to allow the students to wear their sashes after all. His reason, he explained at Tuesday’s board meeting, is that there’s no existing district policy or guidance prohibiting the practice.

Davis, who is joining the U.S. Air Force and heading to boot camp later this month, and classmate Jonathan Marsh, who is joining the U.S. Marine Corps, attended the meeting to advocate for such a policy for the future.

“We are here tonight to say thank you for letting us wear our sashes this year, but we also want to make sure that Keene students from here on out will also get the same chance that we do,” Marsh said.

Davis emphasized that the students are proud of their decision to join the military. She said attending Keene High gave her the opportunity to explore her options and, ultimately, to join the armed forces.

“I don’t think that it’s fair to give us the opportunity to meet the recruiters (at school), and then not allow us to wear the sashes representing this decision,” Davis said. “Because even though it’s not ... academic directly, the things that we learned at Keene High School really affect how we came to serve in the military.”

Another attendee, Keene resident Joseph Mirzoeff, raised concerns about the district advertising for the armed forces by allowing students to wear the sashes.

“I’m distressed at how much of our economy the military is taking over at the detriment of everything else,” Mirzoeff said. “So I would hope that you don’t allow your ceremony to market the military-industrial complex.”

During his report later in the evening, Malay encouraged the board to begin discussing a formal policy for graduation regalia, and said he plans to release a community survey in the fall to gather public input on the issue.

Malay noted that, though he ultimately overturned Logan’s decision not to allow the sashes, he doesn’t necessarily disagree with the principal’s view.

“Mr. Logan shared his perspective on it, and both of them are right. Neither one of them are wrong,” Malay said of Logan and Davis. “That’s the difficult part about this, is that you’ve got very compelling positions on both sides of that conversation.”

George Downing, chairman of the board, said he will direct the board’s policy committee to take up the issue in the fall.

“It goes beyond just the sash question. There’s an awful lot of questions involved — a lot of ambiguity in how we do things right now,” Downing said.

Keene High’s graduation ceremony is set for Friday at 6 p.m. on Alumni Field.


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With EPA grant, Walpole plans cleanup without town funds

WALPOLE — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded Walpole a $500,000 grant to clean up a contaminated property near the center of town.

The money will help pay for remediation at the former Westminster Street location of Central Plating, Inc. The company dissolved around 2006.

“I honestly don’t know what they plated, but the land is full of chromium and other nasty things that are carcinogenic,” said Peggy Pschirrer, a member of the Walpole Board of Selectmen.

Recent environmental testing found chromium, PFAS chemicals and other contamination at the Central Plating site. A group of manmade chemicals used in consumer products and industrial processes, PFAS have been linked to negative health effects, and some have been phased out in the United States, according to the EPA.

The planned cleanup involves taking down a 1,000-square-foot shed, removing the impacted soil and replacing it with new fill, according to Pschirrer.

Town officials ultimately hope to pave the land, creating 40 much-needed parking spaces in the center of town, she said.

The property consists of two adjoining parcels totaling less than one-third of an acre. The town has owned the land since early January, when it bought it for $1 from the estate of Nils A. Westberg, Central Plating’s owner.

The EPA awards brownfields assessment and cleanup grants to “under-served and economically disadvantaged communities” hoping to repurpose former industrial or commercial sites, according a recent news release from the agency announcing the awards.

Pschirrer thinks Walpole’s application was helped by the fact that redeveloping the Central Plating site as a parking lot could boost the local economy. She said there’s a need for parking in the area, which has a library, banks, restaurants and other businesses.

“That’s not very sexy,” she said of plans for parking, “but that’s exactly what we need in the center of town.”

Town officials also envision charging stations for electric vehicles and a small seating area, she said.

Pschirrer said she hopes to complete the cleanup within two years, starting with the formation of a citizens committee to solicit bids from qualified contractors.

The cleanup costs are estimated at about $740,000, and town officials don’t anticipate using taxpayer funds. In addition to the $500,000 from the EPA, the N.H. Department of Environmental Services has said it intends to award the town a $100,000 cleanup grant. The Westberg estate has also contributed $175,000, held in escrow, according to Pschirrer.

The EPA grant comes with a requirement that recipients put up some of their own money as a match, but Walpole obtained a waiver, Pschirrer said. She called that “the icing on the cake.”

After the cleanup, town officials will propose a warrant article asking voters to authorize the parking-lot construction, she said.