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Federal ruling could alter downtown mill ponds
By Paul Bistoff/ Staff Writer
Thursday, April 13, 2006 - Updated: 10:18 AM EST

MAYNARD - In the latest chapter of a saga spanning more than four years played out Tuesday night as representatives of Clock Tower Place presented their most recent plan to control the flow of water diverted from the Assabet River into the mill ponds.
Talk flows over 4 years
    The plan - to install new, adjustable steel gates at the gatehouse in the canal below the Ben Smith Dam - is a last ditch effort before Clock Tower Place is forced to comply with an order of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to build a non-movable, fixed weir that would prevent water from reaching the mill ponds during periods of low flow on the Assabet. .
    "There is now a compromise solution, that the weir isn’t fixed but it’s heavily regulated," said selectman Sally Bubier.
    The possible effects of a fixed weir on the neighboring community, and the downtown Maynard business district, are vast - ranging from a public safety hazard to foul smells, forever altered scenery and flooding.
    "It is our view that the requirement for a fixed weir has some negative consequences," said Clock Tower Place Director of Public Affairs Joe Mullin.
The water system

    According to the United States Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service the Ben Smith Dam, located off of Taft Avenue, impounds about 19 acres of water. Water in the impoundment takes one of two paths: over the dam into the natural channel of the Assabet River, or into a man-made canal that directs water through Clock Tower Place’s two mill ponds before it rejoins the Assabet 1.33 miles downstream.
    The entire water system is regulated by a guideline established by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service - at no time should less than 39 cubic feet per second of water flow down the natural bed of the Assabet. The 39cfs low flow limit was determined by measuring the river’s median flow in August 1981.
    A gate house, located two-thirds of the way between the Ben Smith impoundment and the upper mill pond, controls the flow of water entering the ponds. Regulations state that when the flow of water in the Assabet is less than the 39cfs limit, the gates should be closed and no water should enter the ponds. When the flow is more that 39cfs the gates can be opened, allowing water into the ponds and ensuring a healthy water system at the mill.
The debate

    The debate began in March 2002 when the owner of Clock Tower Place, Wellesley Rosewood Maynard Mills L.P., filed with the FERC to surrender its permit to generate hydroelectricity at the mill complex. The permit -referred to by FERC as an exemption from licensing - was originally granted to Digital Equipment Corp. in October 1983, when the company decided to make use of the existing dam and pond complex to generate electricity.
    Surrendering a permit for a non-operational hydroelectricity project seemed like a simple thing to do at the time, but it began a process in which Clock Tower Place was forced to consult with interested federal, state and local agencies - each of which was allowed to comment on how the site would be managed after the permit was surrendered.
    And many of the interested parties - including the Organization for the Assabet River, the United States Department of the Interior Fish and Wildlife Service and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife - are much more concerned about the health of the Assabet River than a man-made water system. These parties have been unanimous in their refusal to accept any solution that requires gate adjustments to maintain flow. Such systems are hard to regulate, while a fixed weir requires no human intervention to operate as designed.
    "A variety of parties wanted to have an impervious and non-retractable structure in place so 39cfs could be maintained at all times," said Mullin. "After a very long process the federal government issued the order for us to build a fixed weir."
    But Mullin, along with his hired engineers and consultants, believes the installation of a fixed weir could have adverse effects on Maynard, although he admits to what extent is not yet understood.
    "I wish I could sit here and tell you what the impacts are going to be," said Mullin.
    Mullin cited three major concerns.
    If water was prevented from reaching the mill ponds for an extended period - during a summer drought, for example - the water level could drop significantly. This could impact public safety, as Maynard Fire Chief Stephen Kulik explained to a FERC official in a April 2003 phone conversation, because the pond serves as a backup to the town’s water system in case of a major fire that overtaxes the supply.
    A second concern of stopping water from entering the ponds, Mullin said, is stagnant water. As water flows into the ponds, the system naturally flushes out. Stop that flushing action and the potential exists for serious algae growth and a strong odor permeating through the surrounding neighborhoods. Stagnant water can also become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
    Mullin’s third concern occurs during a time of very high flow, when a fixed weir would eliminate the ability of the ponds to act as a safety valve to release water from the main river channel. This could lead to flooded homes, particularly in Maynard neighborhoods that are built very close to the river’s banks.
The path to resolution

    This most recent, and perhaps last, chance for Clock Tower Place and the Board of Selectmen to avoid building a fixed weir stems from a ruling made by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Office of Dam Safety, which will gain regulating jurisdiction of the dam and water system after the exemption is officially surrendered.
    Office of Dam Safety regulations state that the dam structure must have a low-level outlet, like the canal and the ponds, which can be opened to lessen the water level behind the dam in the case of an emergency.
    "We’re trying to avoid the word ’fixed weir’ for emergency purposes," said Mullin.
    Mullin said Clock Tower Place will continue to progress toward construction of the weir this summer, but plans are in the works to "stop time" to conduct one last study to make sure that the best solution is not to just restart the hydroelectric generating plant.
    "We are anticipating filing a legal motion to seek some time to measure the feasibility of hydro," said Mullin.
    Regardless, the water flow debate is destined to increase in intensity as those on both sides dig in for a fight.
    "The fixed weir is the answer," said resident Roger Gay, who lives near the river’s banks on Shore Avenue.
    Gay said he remembers a weekend in 1998, when the canal gates where left open during a low flow period and all of the water in the Assabet was diverted to the ponds.
    "I don’t care about the mill pond, but I do care about the river," said Gay.

An aerial view of the mill pond structure at Clock Tower Place. (Courtesy of Clock Tower Place)
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bh.heraldinteractive.com: 0.057722:Thu, 13 Apr 2006 14:18:51 GMT