Smithfield's Georgiaville Pond winter drawdown will permit spillway repairs

Smithfield's Georgiaville Pond winter drawdown will permit spillway repairs

SMITHFIELD - Georgiaville Pond, home of the town beach, will temporarily shrink to less than half its usual size, starting at the end of this month, so a contractor over the fall and winter can replace antiquated mechanisms currently used to adjust its depth.

Additionally, after hearing shorefront residents complain that silt and invasive weeds are choking the waterway, the council has informally agreed to develop a continuing management plan that will assure the pond's future as a key recreational asset.

Each fall the pond is routinely lowered about four feet for several months, to expose invasive plants to killing frost, but this year will be different: To accommodate construction on the spillway and replacement of World War II-era devices that control outflow into the Woonasquatucket River, the pond will be lowered 13 feet until early March.

According to Town Engineer Kevin Cleary, that will reduce the surface area from about 90 acres to 35 or 40 acres.

He said the depth reduction will be gradual, since the allowable rate of drawdown, four inches a day, will take about 40 days.

At a Sept. 10 public workshop on the plan, about 18 area residents seemed unanimous in supporting the drawdown, which will make it possible for construction to proceed on an improvements project expected to cost several hundred thousand dollars.

But there was still disagreement over how long the standard, four-foot drawdowns should last in future years, with some residents supporting winter-long reductions and others asserting that extended drawdowns are unsightly and eliminate winter recreation on the pond.

Members of the private Georgiaville Pond Association, which controls pond depth in cooperation with Cleary, have asserted that the only economical way to freeze out invasive weeds is to keep the pond level down four feet through most of the winter.

But another faction, including pond area resident Donald Burns, chairman of the municipal Conservation Commission, contends that the annual drawdown creates ugly mudholes and curtails cold-weather activities such as ice fishing and ice skating. He and others have suggested lowering the water level only until about Jan. 1 each year.

That issue seemed unresolved after two and one-half hours of discussion at the Town Council workshop.

Cleary said that within the next few weeks he will ask the council to advertise for bids on the improvements project, which will include spillway repairs and replacement of the hand-operated mechanisms that control the volume of water allowed to escape into the Woonasquatucket River.

Currently, he said, the aged devices are difficult to operate and sometimes allow the pond level to drop more than the four-foot maximum permitted by the State Department of Environmental Management.

The new mechanisms will make that problem a thing of the past, he told the council.

He said the town has enough money in its capital improvements budget to cover the cost of the work.

Cleary said he had proposed initially that construction begin with the normal four-foot drawdown, with the 13-foot reduction to come for just a three-week period later in the construction process.

However, he said, the DEM wanted the larger drawdown earlier, when still-warm water would encourage fish and other pond life to migrate to deeper areas.

Since fish will be more confined and more predatory toward their spawn, a result of the lowered water level might be a temporary decline in the fish population over the next few years, Cleary said.

He noted that the Georgiaville Pond drawdown will require two-foot depth reductions in feeder ponds, including Slacks and Waterman Reservoirs that are routinely lowered anyway, but that a similar drop would be needed at state-controlled Stump Pond.

He said he would ask the DEM to cooperate.

Cleary and some area residents said the pond is being choked by plant-nourishing silt from development and stormwater inflow, both from surrounding roadways and feeder ponds.

Frank O'Connell, president of the pond association, said the waterway is classified by the state as impacted by invasive plants and that over 25 percent of it, the plants are thick enough to clog the propellers of outboard motors.

Freezing the plants at low water levels over prolonged cold weather is an economical way of controlling the growth, he said.

But some questioned the effectiveness of that and said the tradeoff in loss of off-season pursuits isn't worth it.

Joan Burns complained that residents there are taxed at waterfront rates but can enjoy the water only eight months a year because of the drawdowns.

O'Connell, meanwhile, stressed the need for a professional management plan that he estimated would cost $10,000, and said he would ask his association to contribute to the town's cost.

He and others, including Cleary, said the plan should include public education highlighting how much stress is placed on the pond by thoughtless activity around it, and that funding would also be necessary to clear out known conduits of silt that finds its way there.

As an example of what can be done, Cleary cited a recent project that sharply reduced silt being washed into Stump Pond, but added that outside grants like the one he wrote for the work are becoming more difficult to obtain.

Council President Alberto LaGreca Jr. said he hoped a plan could be developed over the coming year that it might also apply to other ponds in town, and suggested that costs involved in a management program might be spread out over multiple years.