Thursday, January 13, 2011

So why is the state on Bolton’s case, anyhow?

In 2005 a dam in Taunton threatened to give way, causing the evacuation of 2000 residents.  This event put the state's Dam Safety Office on notice.  Dams throughout the state have come under much closer scrutiny. One result: a dam safety order requiring the town of Bolton to repair or remove the Fyfeshire Pond Dam on Wattaquadock Hill Rd.  The office of dam safety has classified the Fyfeshire Dam as a small size, significant hazard potential structure.  That means it may cause “loss of life and significant property damage in the event of a failure.” (View the Dam Safety Order to the town of Bolton—pdf format.)

On Tuesday, the state issued a report on the local financial impact of the Dam Safety Law, stating that out of 627 municipally owned dams in Massachusetts, 100 “relatively large” dams in 62 cities are in poor or unsafe condition.  Thirty-two of those are in Worcester County.  Most of those have been designated in "poor" condition, with six in the “unsafe” category, the lowest designation, including Fyfeshire Dam in Bolton.  An Associated Press article and link to the report can be found on the WBUR website (  Other facts relevant to the Fyfeshire Dam from this report:  level of maintenance is deemed “in poor level of upkeep, no operations and maintenance manual on file,” and emergency preparedness status is designated as “some idea of what to do in an emergency but no written plan.”

While I laud the intention of this law and agree that we need to take precautions to keep people safe, I question the implementation in this case.  The dam clearly needs maintenance—there is a big crack on the right hand side as you look through the dam toward Wattaquadock Hill Road. Yet the dam has withstood several large recent storms and high-water events without failing—although past performance is no guarantee of future results. 
The dam undergoing repairs in 1995. Note the crack in the wall on the right side.

Most of the dams on this list of 100 are at least 15 feet in height and impound at least 50 acre feet of water, according to the state report.  The example the report holds up as a worst-case scenario (not identified by name, but most likely Breeds Pond Outlet Dam in Lynn, MA) is a dam 50 feet high that sits over a densely populated neighborhood of homes, schools and businesses. 

Fyfeshire Dam, in contrast, is about 6 feet tall and impounds a 10.3-acre pond. There are only a handful of houses on high ground in the downstream path should the dam fail.  There IS Collins Road, and if a car is driving on that road and the dam fails, that car could be washed away.  That alone is reason enough to strengthen precautions against such an event.  But does it need to be as drastic as a half-million dollar repair or complete removal?  Why not start with updating the inadequate culvert running under Collins Road?  The state’s one-size-fits-all solution to dam safety defies common sense when applied to our little dam. 

One positive thing in the report is in the recommendations section.  Auditor Joe DeNucci is calling for creation of a no-interest revolving loan program to help cities and towns repair the dams.  That would be a very welcome helping hand indeed.

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