The Charles River Dam and spillway in south Natick over the years has served as a place of beauty and tranquility, attracting visitors from within and outside of town since its creation in 1934.
But those who frequent the dam will have just a handful years to continue soaking up its sights and sounds. The Natick Select Board this week voted 4-1 to remove the dam and its spillway instead of seeking to repair the 88-year-old structure.
As the dam aged, its condition deteriorated and it has become increasingly difficult to maintain due to “extensive mature tree growth on the earthen dam,” according to town officials.
Upon completion decades ago, the concrete structure, with an earth-fill embankment and stone masonry, looked to beautify what is now called South Natick Dam Park, create a new swimming hole upstream of the spillway and create work amid the Great Depression, according to the Natick Historical Society.
A flood in the early 1930s destroyed a timber dam that was built in the 1700s and served local mills, historical records show.
The dam’s historical significance and aesthetics drove Selectman Michael J. Hickley Jr. to cast the board’s lone vote against the removal.
“This is a place you really can’t undo,” he said during Wednesday’s meeting. “There’s hundreds of years of a community that is built up around this location. Life decisions have been made for decades and beyond about this location where streets are, where homes are built.”
Repairing or removing the dam became a contentious debate between residents and town officials within the past several years. Residents approved spending $1.2 million to repair the structure at a town meeting in 2019, but that vote came before the state deemed the dam to be in poor condition and removal became an option.
In September, an 18-member advisory committee “overwhelmingly” suggested removing the dam and spillway in order to restore the Charles River, with just two members favoring repair.
The committee, appointed in March 2021, concluded that the dam negatively impacts the river’s ecosystem, and doing away with the dam could create a safer river environment, one that offers opportunities in honoring the area’s history.
Roger Scott lives on Water Street which runs along the downstream of the Charles River and is a half mile away from the dam. He said he’s worried about the potential dangers that removing the dam may pose on his home and neighborhood.
The dam, which holds 160 million gallons of water, “serves no functional purpose and does not provide flood control,” according to Natick’s town website.
“We need to look at this as a more severe and dangerous situation,” Scott told the Select Board before its vote.
The exact process ahead remains murky, but town officials said in a memo to the board earlier this month that removal could take about six years. Project costs are estimated to be around $1.5 million, well under the $2.6 million estimate to repair. It also remains unclear how the removal will be funded.
Some residents urged the board to halt its decision to get clear information. Board Chairman Paul R. Joseph admitted the board’s decision Wednesday came with some unknowns as to what the future will hold.
Advocacy group Save Natick Dam started a petition earlier this year that has received 2,170 signers and nearly 800 comments, while a GoFundMe called ‘Save Natick Dam to Save Wildlife’ has raised $10,655 since August.
Joseph said the town needs to be mindful of the future, especially the potential implications of climate change.
“If we breach the dam, there’s nothing to stop us from putting in a beautiful park, a place for reflection, a place for contemplation,” he said.
Stopping by for lunch on a sunny and warm Saturday, out-of-towners Nancy Truitt and her husband said they approved removing the dam.
“I think there will be a (regrowth) in beauty if we’re making things more friendly to the birds, and all the invertebrates and creatures that use the water,” Truitt said.
Stuart Cahill contributed to this report.