What’s Behind the Dam?

When people who lived and worked in Lowell were trying to figure out how to revive the city in the 1960s and ’70s, one piece of wisdom that emerged during the planning was that it makes sense for Lowell as a community to invest in its assets that can’t be taken away. Lowell people had experienced the worst of the economic boom-and-bust cycles. The city was a case study of boom-and-bust. The new thinking 40 years ago was about stabilizing the city’s fortunes to the extent possible by extracting value from sustainable resources like the city’s history, cultural heritage, and natural features.

People were talking about preserving and reusing buildings; cleaning the rivers; making the state forest and urban waterways accessible; making the history public through tours, exhibits, and books; and celebrating the multi-ethnic social fabric. It was a new way of thinking about economic development. Much of this has happened. The lesson learned is that those things that make the city distinctive are assets whose constant value does not depend on one particular corporation or a group of outside investors. Lowell’s architecture, nature, and culture cannot be taken away like a textile company or a computer firm.

Fast forward to the debate over the Pawtucket Falls dam, which is recognized as a national landmark and stands as a monument to the origin of this place as the prototypical industrial city in America. The dam in its current form is an essential element of Lowell National Historical Park. A large corporation, not owned by Lowell investors,  is asking for permission from the city to change the appearance and operation of the dam. The corporation is doing what it is expected to do:  trying to increase its efficiency and profits. The proposed changes would be costly and prohibitively expensive to reverse in the future should that be desired. The question for the Lowell community is whether the likely unalterable change to the historic structure should be allowed for relatively short-term business gains now. What if ownership of the dam changes? Lowell has seen companies come and go. What does Lowell lose as a result of the proposed change? Pawtucket Falls is a unique scenic vista in the city. The Old North Bridge in Concord hasn’t been replaced by a steel footbridge so that it will last longer and hold more people.

Concerned Pawtucketville residents are better equipped than me to make the neighborhood flooding impact argument, so I’ll let them speak to that issue. My point here is that Lowell has learned that its special character has enormous value over the long-term. The hydropower plant is an important green energy business and is profitable now, which is a good thing, otherwise it would not be in the corporation’s interest to operate every day. What is the trade-off for increased efficiency and earnings? What does Lowell gain or lose? Is the change worth it?

4 Responses to What’s Behind the Dam?

  1. deb forgione says:

    The Lowell Sun said it would take the “the Wisdom of Solomon” to solve this problem. Paul you are our first ” Solomon” to step forward and speak out.

    The clarity of a National Landmark that will be erased by a company who can come and also go bankrupt tomorrow ( it is an international company and the euro is falling drastically that is why they need to make up the loses here in the Unites States)

    This is not the final frontier of technology either so will they be back in 10 years to say now we need..etc…it will never end

    Thank you for your post and “wisdom. I hope more wise men and women speakout..

  2. JoeS says:

    Although the private sector has the reputation for efficiency in doing the job, the goals or that job do not always line up with the public interest. In this case Enel’s goal is to maximize the potential energy that they can obtain from the water – they would like the upper basin of the river to be full to its banks at all times. However, that condition is certainly a limit on ground water drainage from the adjacent properties. They would also like the feeder canals to be free from debris at the entrance to their power generators, but have no real incentive to clear the canals otherwise. And although they may recognize the responsibility to mainain certain canal bridges, they are typically in no hurry to do so.

    Conversely, the priorities of the City and its citizens are to reduce the flooding problems in the neighborhoods, have clean canals that are the jewels in Lowell’s crown, and have safe bridges which are passable at all times. Yes, we want efficient “green” power, but not to the extent it significantly compromises the other goals.

    This conflict in priorities is best settled by a division of responsibilities, the City to maintaining the canals and bridges, and protecting the susceptible neighborhoods, and Enel to generating power for its own profit.

    The struggle for more water-sourced power is not new to the city. The following link to a paper by the Society of Industrial Archeology describes the efforts to keep the level of power to the mills up during the 19th century.


    Of note is the addition of flashboards to the Pawtucket dam in 1840 – at a 2-ft height! It wasn’t until 1883 that the level of flashboards were increased by another foot to a 3-ft height. The 5-ft plyood “flashboards” have little historical significance, but are used as the basis of why a 5-ft bladder should be acceptable.

    If the City, with Enel as a willing or unwilling partner, developed a plan to maintain the dam, canal and bridges in exchange for a contract to provide “mill-power” to Enel (hopefully at a price to cover the costs to the city for its added work) the difference in priorities could be addressed. It may take the wisdom of James B. Francis to work out the specifics of that contract so that Enel can profit on one hand, and the City can balance its new enterprise fund budget over the long term with the vagaries of the Merrimack flow over time, and its efficiency in recovering whatever flashboard height is settled by the contract needs, preferrably less than 5-ft.

  3. linda says:

    Ask any city councilor if Enel has dealt with the city in a fair manner. At city council meetings Enel didn’t even show up. Now Enel wants to use ‘promises’ of money for city projects to grease the wheels for their proposed bladder dam. Enel has already defaulted on its responsibility to repair bridges over the canals and fire trucks have to detour but we should believe these new promises? We should let them destroy a National Landmark? What will they ask for next? Where would this city be without the National Park? We’d be like Lawrence. A city whose dam is so completely different from Lowell’s that any comparison is irrelevant. Enel has publicly said the bladder dam will have no effect on flooding, they have also said it will help prevent flooding. You can’t have it both ways but Enel is adept at telling anyone what they want to hear. I will be glad to send copies of Lowell Sun articles from 1985 and 1989 quoting Boott Hydro’s own president who explained why the flashboard system was installed and how it made money for the company while keeping the city safe. But Enel wanted more…

  4. Bob Gagnon says:

    Good letter Joe, but I would like to clear up a few points. Regarding finding a blance between profits and managing river height. Enel purchased the Hydro Plant with the Wang Agreement attached to the deed of the dam, specifying 4′ boards in the spring, that fail to hold back water when overtopped by one foot of water. Anyone can search the records at the Regestry of Deeds, it’s still there. Enel makes plenty of money operating with the flashboards, the inflatable will only increase profits slightly while putting us at a greater risk from flooding, and dumping tons of trash downriver. We have been told that Enel makes about one million dollars a month generating hydro power in Lowell. The trash in the canals is a different issue than the trash that will be dumped downriver by the inflatable. The large mound of trash that build up at the Pawtucket Falls will be passed downriver by the inflatable, not removed by a crane and disposed of in dumpsters as it is now, Enel tells us this. The trash in the canals is removed by a non-profit group called the Lowell Canal Waters Cleaners, who interestingly enough, Enel tried to stop during the early years of the group.

    Thanks, Bob Gagnon