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Why I Voted to Remove the Mill Pond Dam

I’ll start with the disclaimer that I am not speaking for the Durham Town Council and am expressing my opinion. In 2018, I was part of a working group of Town Councilors and Durham Public Works staff that met to discuss the condition of the Mill Pond. Parts of it had become very shallow and water quality during the summer was a concern. How could we fix the pond? Dredging? This turned out to be very expensive and permitting would be a problem. How about opening the dam gates in the fall to lower the water level and kill vegetation? One member of the working group wisely suggested we might want to ask a river expert. The town hired the engineering firm Weston and Sampson to study sediment transport, and found that opening the gates actually increased sediment deposition in the pond. As we wrestled with how to move forward, we began focusing on the dam. It was in poor condition. It had a letter of deficiency from the state for not meeting storm event standards, and the concrete showed significant deterioration. At this point, it became clear that removing the dam to improve water quality was an option that needed to be examined.

In 2019, we considered several engineering firms and chose VHB to study the options of repairing, stabilizing, and removing the dam. The work cost the town several hundred thousand dollars and took nearly a year. The study’s findings were clear: keeping the dam would require extensive concrete work that would significantly alter its historic design, and the Mill Pond water quality would continue to decline. Removal of the dam coupled with channel restoration was cheaper and a much more sustainable option. During public comments after presenting the findings of the study, some residents asked if it was possible to keep the dam and improve the water quality of the pond. The Council commissioned VHB to do a supplemental study of this question, and the short answer was no. Dam removal was the best option for improving the Oyster River.

Last fall, after nearly two years of studies and community input, I followed the science and voted to authorize the engineering work required for the removal of the Mill Pond Dam. It is a major step in the efforts to protect our river systems. March 8, I will have a second opportunity to weigh in on this question and will again vote to remove the dam with a no vote on 2 .

Al Howland


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