Monday July 2, 2012

Advocacy groups and members of the Berkshire delegation are pushing to create a revolving loan fund to assist with the repair or removal of hazardous dams in Massachusetts.

Groups including The Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts Municipal As sociation are backing legislation passed in the state Senate in 2011 in hopes the House of Representatives acts on the bill by the end of the legislative session on July 31.

The bill calls for redirecting $17 million in existing funds from the state's Water Pol lution Abatement Trust to provide low-interest loans for dam repairs or removal.

Roughly 1,700 publicly and privately owned dams in the state are in disrepair and potentially pose a threat to natural habitat or public health. Most were built around the time of the Industrial Revolution to power mills, and more than 80 percent of those dams no longer serve their original purpose.

A 2010 report from then-state Auditor Joseph DeNucci highlighted 100 municipally owned dams rated as unsafe or poor. Five of those dams are in Berkshire County: two are in Washington but owned by Pittsfield -- Ashley Lake and Farnham Reservoir dams; and three are in North Adams -- Notch Reservoir, Mount Williams Reservoir and Wind sor Lake dams.

The state auditor's report said it would cost $60 million to repair or remove the 100 dams. And while this program clearly wouldn't fund all the needed work, it would be an important step in the right direction, according to Steve Long of The Nature Conservancy.

Long said there is also the potential to receive $3 to $4 in matching federal funds for every state dollar for projects that would benefit cold water fisheries or coastal rivers and streams.

Long said there is a unique collaboration of disparate en vironmental, engineering and municipal advocacy groups backing the legislation, and he believes questions of how to administer the fund have been resolved.

"The stars have aligned this legislative session to get this bill done," said Long.

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said there's no reason why the bill shouldn't pass.

"I would like to think this isn't a controversial issue," said Pignatelli. "This is something that is of serious concern."

Pignatelli said the state ignored its infrastructure for too long, and though progress is being made on roads and bridges, more needs to be done to accelerate dam safety initiatives.

State Rep. Gailanne M. Cariddi, D-North Adams, serves on the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Re sources and Agriculture that released the bill favorably.

Cariddi said it's a matter of being proactive and not waiting until lives, homes or infrastructure are lost. She also noted that natural resources play a key role in the local economy, and removing dams can help restore habitat.

"It's imperative that we address these types of things," said Cariddi, "even though it's not always on the public's radar."