The scene at right is one of the jewels of Keene, NH. The Robin Hood Forest and Children’s Wood, a 130-acre preserve established in the 1890s, has looked like this ever since then. But it’ll look very different this summer when the pond is drained in order to make improvements mandated by the state.

Those of us who live near the park, and enjoy it often, only learned about the plan last fall. And we were very surprised. But the wheels had in fact been turning since the summer of 2008:

On June 17, 2008 the NHDES Dam Bureau issued a letter of deficiency (LOD) to the City of Keene for the Robin Hood Reservoir Dam requiring a number of immediate and long-term improvements to be made. These improvements included requiring the dam discharge outlet structure to be redesigned and constructed to accommodate a 100-year storm 2.5 times stronger than expected for that event.

Today, in response to a minor uproar in the community, you can find that information on the city’s Robin Hood Dam Project Information Page. But that page didn’t exist two years ago, and it’s not how my neighbor who lives across the street from the pond found out about the project. Instead she heard about it from a neighbor who had, I think, encountered some engineers surveying the pond.

There had been nothing secret about the process. The state’s letter to the city was notionally public, as was the city’s decision to hire an engineering firm to comply with the state’s (unfunded) mandate. But these things weren’t public in any way that enabled citizens, in the normal course of their lives, to find out about them. Newspaper reporters are trained to scrutinize these processes, and they try to be the eyes and ears of the community, but they can’t be everywhere. Things fall between the cracks. This project sure did.

Nobody’s happy with the outcome. It’s not just that the pond will be drained this summer in order to enlarge the spillway, leaving an ugly mess and a lot of dead fish and frogs. Or that we’ll spend $600,000 to mitigate what many people think is a minor and questionable risk. There’s also an abiding sense that we ought to have known sooner. Maybe the state’s mandate would still have been non-negotiable, maybe not, but we resent finding out only after it was a done deal.

Thanks to some new web services provided by the city, things are more transparent now, and we have the opportunity to do things differently. But it’s up to us to make that happen. In Gov2.0 transparency: An enabler for collaborative sense-making, I wrote:

  • It’s amazing to be able to observe the processes of government.

  • It’s still a challenge to make sense of them.

  • Tools that we know how to build and use can help us meet that challenge.

Yesterday I was reminded that the Robin Hood Dam isn’t the only one found deficient by the state. There’s also the Ashuelot River Dam on West Street. Last September, a city council committee recommended that the city accept a $16,000 NOAA grant to study the feasibility of removing this dam. Thanks to Keene’s use of the Granicus service, we can review the council’s discussion and vote on this recommendation in its October 7 meeting. And thanks to the permalinks recently added to the Granicus service, I can point directly to that part of the meeting. Here’s some of the discusion:

Councilor Roberts: It’s a feasibility study that in no way requires us to remove the dam.

Councilor Greenwald: This is the slippery slope, the camel’s nose under the tent, the next thing you know, the dam is gone. It’s beautiful, it’s unique, aesthetically and environmentally it needs to stay.

Councilor Redfern: I don’t understand the thinking. We’re going to spend hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, to remove the dam in hopes the fish will return? What if they don’t?

Councilor Duffy: I think a feasibility study will help us balance a consideration between cost and environmental concerns, and explore the pros and cons in more detail.

Councilor Lane: Let’s use this to assess the cost of keeping the dam, as well as the cost of removing it. Personally I have concerns about taking it down, but if we keep it, it has to be maintained, that’s a lot of money too, we need the facts, all this does is use federal money to explore our options.

Councilor Redfern: It says “feasibility study for the removal of the dam,” nothing about an environmental study or an evaluation of the cost of maintaining the dam.

Public Works Director Blomquist: We currently have a contract looking at necessary improvements. We’re under a letter of deficiency from the state, we’ll have to do something, maybe improve the spillway, maybe add a fish ladder. This grant allows us to look at the removal option, which isn’t part of the current contract.

Councilor Roberts: NASA did a feasibility to send a man to Mars, and decided it wasn’t cost effective. If the recommendation comes back that it’s not in our interest to remove the dam, now we have some protection if the state tells us we have to.

Councilor Redfern: What’ll it cost to keep the dam?

Director Blomquist: We’ll need to enlarge the spillway. It’s going to cost us about $600,000 to do the same for the Robin Hood dam, as we’re required to do. We’ll also need to keep the area cleared of trees, so it’ll look very different than it does today, and the community needs to understand that’s part of the commitment to keep the dam, versus removal and restoration of the river to its original course.

Councilor Redfern: Will the state help with removal?

Director Blomquist: No, there’s no money for improvements or maintenance.

Roll call: Redfern: No, Clark: Yes, Lane: Yes, Dunn: Yes, Duffy: Yes, Manwaring: Yes, Richards: No, Roberts: Yes, Greenwald: No, Donegan: No, Venezia: Yes, Jones: No

Mayor Pregent: The motion passes seven to five.

That’s where things stood last October. There isn’t yet broad community awareness about the project. When the issue does surface, it’ll be a contentious one. So I want to try an experiment. I’m proposing the tag WestStDam as a way to loosely coordinate the conversation. I’ll use for items I’m aware of. So far, that tag collects links to the council’s video discussion and its related attachment. I’ll also use the same tag when I post this item and when I mention it on Twitter.

In a city that thinks like the web, others would join me in the use of the WestStDamKeene tag. It would show up on the agendas of future city council meetings when the issue comes back around. It would appear in newspaper articles. It would show up in citizens’ blog posts and tweets. And as a result, it would enable us all to assemble a context in which we can know more, know it sooner, and reason more effectively.