COVENTRY — Amid widespread concern from residents regarding a drastic water level drop, a judge on Friday ordered that the draining of Johnson's Pond be stopped, and that the water be allowed to rise again.
Earlier this week, the Town of Coventry sought an emergency temporary restraining order to stop Soscia Holdings LLC, who purchased the Quidnick Dam and water-flow rights for $1.7 million last year, from emptying the pond.
The town has leased the dam since 1982, when the dam was owned by Quidnick Reservoir Company. Set to expire in 2024, its current lease agreement transferred with the sale of the dam.
In an email sent to the town Tuesday, Soscia Holdings wrote that it would be reducing the pond’s water level “significantly” to prevent flooding during the heavy rainfall expected from Tropical Storm Elsa.
“Historically, the reservoir continues to receive post storm water flow for four days following a storm event,” Soscia said in the email, adding that the pond would therefore be lowered by two feet.
That decision left property owners scrambling to remove their watercraft while they could still access the boat ramp, fearing that after losing so much water the pond wouldn't replenish itself by summer's end.
In an affidavit, Ed Warzycha, who currently serves as Coventry's administrative officer, said that the dramatic lowering of the pond posed a “real danger” to people's property.
“Boats, boat motors, and props could become irreparably damaged if the water level continues to decrease,” the affidavit reads. It also says that “no summer storm has ever caused the control gates to be opened” between June 1 and Sept. 30.
The move also left residents of the 659-acre reservoir, which is surrounded by some 800 waterfront and water-access homes, wary of making summer plans.
“We had several events planned as we do every year and we will be holding back those dates due to the possibility of not enough water to have them,” Jon Pascua, public information officer of the Johnson’s Pond Civic Association, wrote Wednesday in a post on the organization's Facebook page.
Calling Soscia’s decision to drain the pond “premature,” Town Solicitor Nicholas Gorham noted in a motion seeking the injunctive relief that Soscia hadn't offered any evidence supporting the need to lower the water level.
The state Department of Environmental Management, meanwhile, said that based on the amount of rain projected to fall in Coventry, it did not recommend lowering water levels ahead of the storm.
Judge Jeffrey Lanphear on Thursday gave a verbal order that Soscia Holdings be allowed to lower the water level to 18 inches below the spillway level — rather than the 24 inches Soscia had said it would be dropped by — and that it be returned to spillway level as quickly as possible following the storm.
But on Friday afternoon, following a conference call between town dam engineer Robert Fairbanks and Jim Russell, a dam engineer working with Soscia, Lanphear ordered that the gates be closed and that the water be allowed to rise to full spillway as quickly as possible.
During an earlier conference call between the town, Soscia’s attorney and Lanphear, the town had expressed its concern that, based on an opinion by Fairbanks, the preferable way of draining water from the pond is over the spillway, rather than through the pipes, given their condition.
“Judge Lanphear also ordered that [the gatekeeper] Mr. Fonseca, and not the Soscias, manage the operation of the gates over the weekend," Warzycha wrote online in an update Friday, "and under no circumstances are the control gates to be opened any more than one half capacity."
As of Friday morning, the pond was 16.5 inches below spillway level, and water was moving at a rate of 357 cubic feet per second, according to Warzycha.
Lanphear scheduled an additional conference call for Monday to review the progress of refilling the pond, Warzycha added.