Fall River considers draining Lake Noquochoke

May 1, 2019

What began as a routine complaint about a dock installed without the proper permits has escalated to a suggestion from a Fall River water official that a city-owned dam may need to be breached, draining Lake Noquochoke.

Discussions in Fall River about the future of the dam had been on the backburner until Dartmouth’s Conservation Commission issued the city an enforcement order for two unpermitted docks following a complaint made by a Dartmouth resident.

The lake and the land around it is situated entirely within the town of Dartmouth, although the city of Fall River owns the water rights to the lake as well as the dam on which it depends.

“The problem started...when one of the people that lives on the lake complained about a neighbor’s dock that had been reconstructed without permits,” explained Dartmouth Environmental Affairs Coordinator Michael O’Reilly.

O’Reilly and a conservation officer went to look, and saw that both neighbors had unpermitted docks on their Sherbrook Road properties.

The Conservation Commission sent out violation notices to the two residents.

But they noticed during their research that the docks were technically built on Fall River’s land underneath the lake.

According to O’Reilly, this meant that the Conservation Commission “had no choice but to issue an enforcement action” against the city of Fall River.

The action attracted the attention of Fall River’s Administrator of Community Utilities Terry Sullivan, because the Lake Noquochoke dam is in need of rehabilitation.

“So that’s how this all got started,” O’Reilly said. “[The enforcement action] sort of rekindled the discussion about what to do with the dam.”

Sullivan met with O’Reilly in February and then brought up both issues at a Watuppa Water Board meeting on March 13.

“We’re trying to decide whether to breach that dam or to rehabilitate that dam,” he said at the meeting.

Sullivan explained to the board that the city would consider rehabilitating the dam if the town of Dartmouth helped with the cost.

“If we’re going to rehabilitate, we want [Dartmouth] to pay a significant portion of it,” he said. “Because the prime reason to keep that dam nowadays is to keep Lake Noquochoke a lake — which really benefits the abutters, which are all Dartmouth residents.”

The reason Fall River owned the dam and water rights in the first place, according to Sullivan, was to pump water down Route 6 to the mills at South Watuppa pond.

But the mills are long since gone.

Sullivan noted that the benefits to breaching the dam would be the restoration of fish migration pathways and eliminating dam maintenance in the long term.

Breaching the dam would drain the lake, restoring the area to wetlands.

“If [Dartmouth] aren’t going to participate in that cost, then my expectation would be a future recommendation to breach,” Sullivan said at the meeting.

As for the enforcement order, Sullivan stated in a March 14 letter to Dartmouth’s Conservation Commission that the order brought up “a number of significant concerns” regarding Dartmouth residents’ use of the lake.

If the violation order is not revoked, the letter continued, Fall River administrators would consider a range of options.

These include requiring rent, insurance, and waivers of liability for docks, or revoking all access to the lake for Dartmouth residents.

“We really hope not to do that,” Sullivan said earlier this month. “I really want to come to an agreement with the town.”

But regarding the dam itself, he said, “all options are on the table.”

“Everything comes down to money,” he added.

An engineering report outlining the potential costs of repairing or breaching the dam is due to be released this week.

Sullivan added: “No final decisions have been made yet.”

Select Board member Shawn McDonald said the city has yet to approach the town about breaching the dam.