HINSDALE — The dam that broke above an Ashmere Lake neighborhood and caused serious damage early Saturday was not in the state’s dam inventory used to track and classify dams according to hazard level — should they fail.
The dam was undocumented, according to the Office of Dam Safety, a branch of the Department of Conservation and Recreation. And that means no one was monitoring or inspecting it.
Saturday’s incident raised concern about the condition of the roughly 226 dams in Berkshire County — 26 of which were in “poor or unsafe condition” as of 2004, according to Berkshire Regional Planning Commission’s 2012 Berkshire County Regional Hazard Mitigation Plan.
The report said there might be even more questionable Berkshire dams that are being ignored.
“The condition of 21 dams are unknown and 58 dams are non-jurisdictional, thus they are not regularly inspected,” the plan says, referring to 58 dams owned either by the federal government or low-hazard dams used for agriculture.
- By Matt Martinez, The Berkshire Eagle
State data shows 88 dams rated high or significant hazards to life and property, if breached. These are located throughout most towns and cities in the Berkshires. Dam failures in the county are historically rare. Perhaps for that reason, these structures aren't normally in the spotlight.
“Local officials are largely unaware of the age and condition of the dams within their communities,” the report says. Higher rainfall in a warming climate could shake more dams loose in future, it concludes.
The commission has struggled to obtain updated information from the state. And the state’s own information – which it has geographically mapped online – dates to 2012.
Meanwhile, owners of a battered and waterlogged lakefront property off George Schnopp Road in Hinsdale are still looking for answers – and a lawyer.
Having survived the inundation, Denise and William Hill now worry about repair costs. They didn’t have flood insurance, since they didn’t know they were at risk. All members of the neighborhood's lake association are concerned about the condition of their drinking water wells, Hill says.
The breach released virtually the entire pond through the Hill’s property around 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., packing mud up against their house and taking out their driveway, a shed, deck and dock while they slept.
“It was powerful,” Denise Hill said of the water. “We now have sandbars on our cove that we didn’t have before.”
They will know more about the failure Friday, when state engineers arrive to inspect the dam, she said.
Part of a dam gave way in Hinsdale early Saturday morning, causing water and debris to damage Bill and Denise Hill's home bordering Ashmere Lake on George Schnopp Road.
The state is investigating the Hinsdale break, which drained a pond, sending water, boulders and debris rushing through a property on its way to Ashmere Lake. The office is also working to find out who is linked to the trust that owns the pond and the dam. The owners are ultimately liable for damage or injury caused by a failed dam.
A state-owned dam on the far southern end of the lake will not be strained by Saturday's failure, which released from five to 10 million gallons of water, according to the agency.
The dams of Berkshire County
State officials are probing the Hinsdale dam failure and the incident because it regulates all the state’s dams, including private and municipally owned structures.
But some dams go unmonitored and unmaintained, opening property owners up to liability should a break cause damage or loss of life.
It is the responsibility of property owners – public or private – to register dams with the state office and notify it of property transfers. They must also make sure the dam is safe if it is more than six feet tall and stores more than “15 Acre Feet of impounded water.” That translates to 4,890,000 gallons of water. There are 326,000 gallons in 1 acre foot of water, according to the Water Education Foundation.
The only dams exempt from state dam regulations are those owned by the federal government, along with low-hazard dams used for agriculture.
The state can fine private or municipal property owners up to $5,000 for not following regulations. The state has grant and loan programs for removing or repairing an aging dam – an expensive undertaking.
Estimated costs to address two "critical" dams in the town of Washington – maintained by Pittsfield as part of the city's water supply – and three in North Adams run from $500,000 to over $3 million, according to a 2011 state audit of dams that found 100 statewide to be in poor or unsafe condition.
The state has spent millions repairing or removing dangerous dams since 2015. That includes $43.79 million dedicated by the Baker administration.
The state’s dam safety officials, meanwhile, require dam inspections every two years, and every six months for those in poor condition. The state also requires that emergency action plans for “high hazard” and “significant hazard” dams be filed with the state.
‘Wake up call’
The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission has to consider the hazards of dams — but struggles to keep that data current.
“We would love to have a full list of all the dams — the condition they were in and the hazard level — so that we could better do a regional approach to dam safety and dam projects,” said Courtney Morehouse, a senior planner in the commission’s energy and environment department. “There are quite a few that need to be replaced or get removed.”
She'd like to conduct an updated, comprehensive review of Berkshires dams, but getting up-to-date data from the state has been difficult, she said.
Hazards are one issue. Ecology is another. An accelerating dam removal movement is one of the few places where environmental needs line up with financial incentive, said Brian Yellen, a research assistant professor in geosciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“The upkeep and liability of owning these old structures really exceeds the cost of removing the dam,” Yellen said. “Once it’s gone, the costs go away and the costs to the environment go away.”
He said it was unfortunate that the Hinsdale dam failed so catastrophically – and he’s glad no one was hurt. But Yellen says the failure will help restore the ecological balance. Impoundment by dams warms the water, while many species that live in streams do better in cold water.
“Maybe this can be a wakeup call to the community,” Yellen said. “If you have a dam you’re worried about, one of the best strategies is to get it out of there.”
Money holes to plug
The state’s 2011 audit found that three high-risk dams in North Adams – those in locations where a failure would likely cause fatalities and damage to property and infrastructure – were in poor condition. At the most recent inspections in June, conditions at two of those dams, Mount Williams Reservoir Dam and the Notch Reservoir Dam, were still poor.
The reports for both dams, required regularly for state compliance, conclude with repair recommendations. “Based on this follow-up inspection, and the fact that no significant remedial measures have been implemented since the last inspection,” they both say, “follow up inspections should continue to be performed at the dam on a 180-day interval until the dam is properly repaired to at least fair condition or removed.”
The third flagged in the 2011 audit, Windsor Lake Dam, has since improved its rating to fair, said Timothy Lescarbeau, North Adams commissioner of public services. All three dams are more than 100 years old, according to state data.
Recently, the city received $500,000 in state grant funding to put toward designing major improvements to Mount Williams Reservoir Dam and the Notch Reservoir Dam. The total cost for design is $672,000, leaving the city with a hole to plug, Lescarbeau said. “We will go as far as we can with the half a million dollars we have now,” he said.
And that’s just the first part of the project. Lescarbeau said it would cost an estimated $17 million to complete the two dam improvement projects.
Where will the city get that funding? “I wish I had that answer for you,” he said.
Lescarbeau is working to apply for more grant funding. “This isn’t overnight — these dams have been this way for many years,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s going to break tomorrow,” Lescarbeau said. “I don't think they are anywhere near that yet. If we get the 500-year big one (flood), who knows?”
When Tropical Storm Irene hit in August 2011, the city lowered reservoir levels to prevent dam problems. “That worked fine.”
Failures of the dam would be a major problem.
“Much of North Adams would be under water if the large reservoir dams failed,” reads the city’s Hazard Mitigation and Climate Adaptation Plan, a document completed last year. Alongside flooding and severe weather, dam failure is the highest-ranked hazard. Though its expected frequency is rated as low, defined as events with 0.1 percent to 1 percent chance occurring, it would be “catastrophic.”
Inspectors were out Wednesday in Pittsfield for biennial inspections of high-risk dams, according to Ricardo Morales, the city’s commissioner of public utilities, who oversees five city dams on reservoirs.
In the state's 2011 audit, two Pittsfield-owned dams built in the early 1900s were flagged as being in poor condition: Ashley Lake Dam and Farnham Reservoir Dam. Though the dams are both in the town of Washington, they are part of the Pittsfield reservoir system and owned by the city, Morales said.
Their physical condition ratings have since improved to satisfactory and fair, 2020 inspection reports show.
“We have spent several hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last decade on dam repairs,” Morales said. “Right now we don’t have any critical action items on our dams.”
More investment could be warranted, however, with the city’s reservoir dams.
“I would easily say in Pittsfield, we would have to spend $5 million to bring all of our dams to a satisfactory or good condition.” It’s not a top priority now. “We do take care of immediate issues,” he said.