Mass. bill could help shore up five hazardous Berkshire dams

Thursday January 3, 2013

Five publicly owned Berkshire County dams deemed safety hazards have a better chance of being repaired or replaced after Massachusetts lawmakers on Monday approved a bill designed to make it easier to remove crumbling dams and seawalls.

The Berkshire County structures -- three in North Adams and two in the town of Washington -- are among the top 100 significant and high hazard dams listed in a 2011 report by the state Auditor’s Office.

The legislation would provide $17 million for cities and towns to use to repair or remove unsafe, abandoned or useless dams, while also making improvements to coastal infrastructures.

The bill also would create a Dam Repair and Revolving Loan Fund that would provide long-term loans to private dam owners and municipalities to inspect, repair and remove dams.

Gov. Deval Patrick has yet to sign the bill. An aide told The Associated Press that Patrick hasn’t taken a position on the legislation and will review it before deciding to sign it.

Steve Long, the government relations director for The Nature Conservancy, part of an alliance of groups that backed the legislation, said the damage caused in Massachusetts by Tropical Storm Irene and Hurricane Sandy contributed to the bill’s passing.

"Irene and Sandy were real accelerants for this bill," Long said.

The North Adams dams are located at Notch Reservoir, Mount Williams Reservoir and Windsor Lake. The dams in Washington are located at Ashley Lake and Farnham Reservoir. The city of Pittsfield owns the land where those dams are located because both sites serve as city reservoirs.

The city has also had public safety issues with the Bel Air Dam near Wahconah Park on the west branch of the Housatonic River, but it is not included on the state’s list because it is privately owned.

The state Office of Dam Safety considers dams to be potentially high hazards in areas where their failure would cause loss of life and serious damage to homes, industrial or commercial facilities, important public utilities, main highways or railroads. Those listed as significant hazards are considered likely to cause those types of problems if they fail.

The five Berkshire County dams on the state’s list are all considered high hazards. Four of the five local facilities are more than 100 years old, and two were constructed during the 19th century. The Mount Williams Reservoir Dam was built in 1914. More than 48 percent of the state’s 3,000 dams were constructed in 1900 or earlier, according to The Nature Conservancy.

Bruce I. Collingwood, Pittsfield’s director of Public Utilities, said the city has already completely refurbished the Ashley Lake Dam, which was built in 1901.

"There are no deficiencies at this point," he said.

The city is currently conducting engineering work on the Farnham Reservoir Dam, built in 1910, which is also slated for an overhaul. Collingwood said construction funds for that work are expected to be included in the city’s fiscal 2014 budget.

Although he was unfamiliar with the legislation, Collingwood said the city might be able to use the funds to help rehabilitate the dam at Farnham Reservoir.

"We might very well be positioned to take advantage of that money once I learn the fine points of it," Collingwood said.

In North Adams, Mayor Richard J. Alcombright said the three city-owned dams are not immediate dangers to the public.

"They survived both Irene and Sandy," he said. "They were checked after both of those occurrences and didn’t suffer any additional wear."

Alcombright said the city conducted a study last year that determined North Adams was looking at spending $20 million to upgrade municipal infrastructure and water facilities, including the three dams, over the next 20 years.

He expects that the city will take advantage of the program.

"If we can get design money and bond the rest," he said, "we’re still ahead of the game."


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