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Decaying dams pose risk, engineers say

Lawmakers urged to fund repairs

By Kyle Cheney
State House News Service / March 15, 2011

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Dozens of obsolete and crumbling dams, some built during the Industrial Revolution, are threatening safety, property, and delicate ecological habitats and should be repaired or removed, environmentalists and engineers urged lawmakers yesterday.

“We are sitting on hundreds of potential time bombs waiting to go off,’’ said Peter Richardson, senior vice president of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers, at a State House hearing held by the Legislature’s Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture.

Richardson said a dam in Taunton that nearly failed in 2005 could have caused “catastrophic’’ loss of life and property if it had collapsed. The environment committee’s chairman, Senator Marc Pacheco, is a Taunton Democrat.

There are 2,894 dams in Massachusetts, state conservation officials estimate. About half of them are regulated by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Pacheco has filed legislation to establish a framework for repairing or removing deteriorating dams. The bill would give dam owners access to a new $20 million loan fund for dam repair, and would allow cities and towns to borrow funds for dam repair above legal borrowing limits. The state auditor’s office has recommended that the fund be extended to municipalities.

A January state audit found that removing or repairing the 100 most hazardous municipal dams will cost $60 million. Advocates worry that without additional funding for dam removal, dams will continue to deteriorate and create public safety hazards. They argued that the state Office of Dam Safety has seen disproportionate budget cuts since the economic collapse in 2008.

Senator James Eldridge, an Acton Democrat and vice chair of the committee, wondered whether the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists, known as MOSES, would support a bill increasing the income tax on high-income earners to raise $1.25 billion to offset additional budget cuts. The bill would also raise the state’s capital gains tax to 8.9 percent from 5.3 percent, while calling for exemptions for low- and middle-income seniors.

“We would certainly be in favor of some form of revenue to support the program,’’ said Joseph Durant, president of MOSES, who noted that the Office of Dam Safety saw its budget slashed from $1.4 million in fiscal 2008 to $410,151 the following year, a 71 percent reduction. This year, the office was funded at $290,000, and Governor Deval Patrick has proposed funding it at the same level in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Durant was unfamiliar with the specific proposal Eldridge referenced.

Durant told lawmakers to be mindful of the destruction water can cause. “We saw it when the levies let go in Katrina, and this weekend after the earthquake in Japan,’’ he said.

Edward Lambert, commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Recreation and former mayor of Fall River, told the committee the agency is preparing to hire three staffers to partner with emergency management officials for dam safety training. He agreed that many owners lack the funding to perform essential repairs.

Lambert said late winter is typically a time of greater strain on weak dams. “This is the time when there is stress on waterways, with the melting snow pack and the rain we have received,’’ he said.

Environmental advocates testifying at the hearing argued that outmoded dams present a hindrance to fish migration.

“A lot of these dams are impeding fish passage and they’re not good for the rivers and streams and biodiversity that could be thriving in those rivers and streams,’’ said Linda Orel, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions.