GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 18, 2011

Gloucester's dam hazards

By Jesse Poole
Staff Writer

When the State Auditor's Division of Local Mandates set out to assess the condition of the state's 2,892 dams last year, it found that 75 percent of the municipally owned dams can be categorized as being either high or significant hazards.

And four of those dams are in Gloucester.

Of Gloucester's 17 dams and dykes, three of the them are deemed "highly hazardous" while a fourth — the south dyke at Fernwood Lake — is the city-owned barrier pegged as posing a "significant hazard."

While not disputing the state's claims on Gloucester's four unsafe dams, city Public Works Director Michael Hale says the city has had no means by which to fund the needed repairs. And Hale, in charge of upkeep on the city's dams, said that, to his knowledge, there are currently no federal bonds or loans that are designed to specifically help municipalities care for their dams and dikes.

Now, however, a group of several organizations, both environmental and engineering, has formed and seeks to bring statewide change to dam safety, backing a bill passed in July by the Senate that — among other things — is designed to enable municipalities to issue bonds for the removal, repair, reconstruction and improvements of unsafe dams.

The bill is now before the House Committee on Ways and Means, which includes state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester.

The coalition represents an alliance among the Mass Municipal Association — a lobbying that represents the state's cities and towns — the American Council of Engineering Companies of Massachusetts, the Boston Society for Civil Engineering Section.

They are being joined by nonprofit giants The Nature Conservancy, Mass Audubon Society, and other environmental organizations — plus the Mass. Organization of Scientists and Engineers (MOSES).

"This would provide a source of funding needed to help better enable dam repair," said Stephen Long, director of government relations at The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts. "It makes safety easier."

Hale said the city is up to date with its dam inspections and noted that three of Gloucester's reportedly "unsafe" dams are located at Fernwood Lake, off Essex Avenue in West Gloucester.

The lake's north dam and west dam were built in 1877 and are the ones that are considered highly hazardous. Its south dyke was built in 1900 and is considered a step worse off, and significantly hazardous.

In assessing the level of risk, the Office of Dam Safety evaluates the likelihood that a dam failure — an uncontrolled release of impounded water — would result in loss of human life or substantial property damage. Dams that are likely to cause such damage are classified as "high hazard."

According to Hale, however, the Fernwood dams wouldn't necessarily cause such hazards, even though they are in hazardous condition.

Fernwood Lake is not being used as an active reservoir, he said, but if its dams were to break, the real estate values of the surrounding homes could reduce in value, as water-front houses become swamp-side.

"In public works, we deal with risk and prioritizing," said Hale. "Each day after any project repair, makes the repair a day older, a day weaker, so funding is always needed."

The Babson Reservoir Dam, meanwhile, is the city's fourth allegedly "unsafe" dam, built in 1930 and now called highly hazardous. That's also the one Hale considers to be the city's most needy.

According to the auditor's office report, factors such as age, outmoded design standards, poor maintenance, earthquakes and floods exacerbate the likelihood of dam failure.

Some of these reasons can be pinned on the Babson Reservoir Dam's current condition, including age and past poor maintenance.

Hale said that a valve on the dam was found — and used — only recently, within the past few years, to modify the level of the reservoir's water. Before that, he said, the water rose to as high a level as it sought, which can cause damage, especially in older barriers.

Hale also said that the dam has not received significant maintenance since its original construction, aside from small maintenances, cleaning, and the sand bags that were used to help its strength in past rain storms and flooding.

"To put it simply," said Hale, "if you don't maintain it, it's a recipe for disaster."

With that thought in mind, Hale said the DPW is planning to pose a request to the city for roughly $2 million toward maintenance specifically targeting — but not limited to —the Babson dam.

"Any opportunities like this (approved Senate) bill for cities or towns to have an alternate funding source, other than local ones, can only help," said Hale. "We're so far behind on infrastructure maintenance, but Gloucester is not unique in that. That's a national problem."

The DPW's finance request proposal will not be ready for at least six more weeks, said Hale.

Meanwhile, municipalities across the state can wait on the verdict of the legislation, which, according to Long, would do the following:

"Create a separate state revolving loan fund for dams from existing state capital funds in order to provide necessary resources for dam owners to repair or remove unsafe dams;

"Establish the authority of municipalities to issue bonds for the removal, repair, reconstruction and improvements of unsafe dams; and,

"Provide the Office of Dam Safety (within the Department of Conservation and Recreation) with enhanced reporting and enforcement authority."

Those, said Hale, would all be welcome changes.

Jesse Poole can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3447, or at gt_reporter@gloucestertimes.com.