DAMS & Boston Herald’s Look at Massachusetts Cuts

Bay State dams in deep water
Gov. Deval Patrick plans to drain $400G in funding
By Marie Szaniszlo
Saturday, February 27, 2010

Thousands of Bay State dams – one of which overflowed yesterday and sent townspeople scurrying from their homes – could soon be left to hold back floodwaters with little oversight as the governor plans to cut $400,000 from the state Office of Dam Safety.

Wendy Fox, spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, confirmed the $427,000 budget for the office is being decimated through Gov. Deval Patrick’s midyear cuts.

She said the plan is to focus on the worst dams with the $27,000 left in the budget while letting most of the 2,900 other dams go unchecked. She added DCR will dip into capital funds to help.

“This agency is still able to address anything involving public safety,” Fox said. “What we lose is the ability to take care of situations that are less critical.”

Yet one dam watchdog disagrees.

“Dams across the state are living on borrowed time, and many of our communities are at risk,” said Brian Graber, Northeast regional director of river restoration for American Rivers, a not-for-profit that has successfully lobbied for the closing of eight Bay State dams over the past nine years.

Yesterday, the state declared a dam safety emergency after the 300-year-old Forge Pond Dam in Freetown began leaking under the weight of this week’s rains and the swell of the Assonet River, forcing the evacuation Thursday night of about a dozen homes downstream.

The department plans to spend $300,000 to breach the dam, one of of five that have received the state’s two worst ratings of “unsafe” and “high-hazard.”

The state’s other dangerous dams are the Monument Dam in Freetown, Pecks Lower Pond and Bel Air dams in Pittsfield and Morey’s Bridge Dam in Taunton.

Patrick has moved to cut the budget for the Office of Dam Safety as tax revenues have tanked.

State Sen. Marc R. Pacheco (D-Taunton), chairman of the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, said funding is only partly to blame. Most of the state’s dams, like the Forge Pond Dam in Freetown, are privately owned and the state needs to be “much more aggressive” about going after owners who abandon them, he said.

“We’ve called for these issues to be dealt with several times,” said Pacheco, who released a report in May 2006 that found state officials had failed to inspect nearly half of all of Massachusetts dams because of bureaucratic foot-dragging and underfunding.

“It certainly hasn’t been quick enough for my liking,” he told the Herald.

And with more precipitation expected to follow the rain and gusts of up to 60 miles per hour that left about 100,000 Bay State residents without power by yesterday morning, the problems could become more urgent.

There is a 70 percent chance of snow showers through this morning turning to rain as temperatures climb, said William Babcock, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

Tomorrow and Monday are expected to be cloudy with a chance of showers, Babcock said. Tuesday could bring a break, only to be followed by another potential storm by midweek, he said.

* + State dams and their safety ratings

Hillary Chabot contributed to this report.

Check out the Herald has a link to a pdf. list of Massachusetts Dams, their ownership and conditions