The owners of thousands of dams across Connecticut will soon be responsible for making sure their structures are safe, and some will have to come up with an emergency plan in case something goes wrong.
A new state law passed during this year’s legislative session makes the dam owners, not the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, responsible for regular inspections. With limited staffing and an expansive backlog of inspections for lesser priority dams, DEEP decided to follow the lead of about 15 other states with similar programs and put the onus on the owners to keep up with timely reviews.
“We really don’t have enough staff to inspect all of the dams that we need to inspect on a frequency that they need to be inspected,” said Arthur P. Christian II, the supervising civil engineer in DEEP’s inland water resources division.
“The dam owners are liable for their own dams,” Christian added. “Let’s have them inspect their own dams and give us the reports as opposed to us trying to be proactive and trying to inspect them and tell the owners what to do.”
Connecticut has about 5,500 dams, small and large. Some date back 200 years and many were built for mills during the Industrial Revolution. Greenwich boasts about 100, the most of any city or town in the state. The town has streams where the elevation drops rapidly and often, enabling multiple dams along the same waterway.
DEEP regulates about 3,000 dams that can cause damage if they fail. Of those, the state owns 200. The rest are owned by municipalities, water companies and private citizens and entities. Christian said he and five co-workers typically inspect about 100 to 125 dams per year but really need to inspect 430 annually to meet state regulatory requirements.
So starting Jan. 1, the owners of about 430 dams – the first batch – will be notified of their new responsibilities, and they’ll have a year to meet them. Then a year later, DEEP will notify another batch, and so on.
The owners have to hire civil engineers to conduct inspection reports, which will be submitted to DEEP for review. The agency can then order the owners to make repairs and improvements. And for the first time, certain dam owners will eventually have to develop emergency action plans with local emergency management officials that spell out who should be evacuated downstream and what should be done in an emergency.
While many of the state’s dams are in decent shape, DEEP officials hope this new approach will encourage dam owners to be more proactive and do the proper maintenance and repairs.
“For the most part, what we’re trying to do is make sure that in the long term we don’t end up with a problem,” said Cheryl Chase, director of DEEP’s bureau of water protection and land reuse. “We don’t see that if this doesn’t happen in the next month or the next year that we’re going to have dam failures all over the place. But in the next 10 to 20 years we could have significant infrastructure failure if people don’t start taking care of things.”
DEEP also wants dam owners better aware of development that might have sprouted up near their dams and could now be at risk.
Rob Schacht and his family have owned a dam on the 80-acre Miller’s Pond in the Quaker Hill section of Waterford since 1939. It is considered a “high-hazard” dam, a designation that pertains to the amount of property damage that could be caused if a dam breaks. While DEEP has come across dam owners who don’t even realize they have a dam on their property – one woman told Christian she thought she simply had a 12-foot waterfall in her backyard – Schacht is well aware of the responsibilities of being a dam owner.
He made major renovations to the dam in the summers of 1997, 1998, and 1999, raising the top of the dam about 2 feet and creating an emergency spillway. He spent more than $100,000 on the project, performing much of the work himself.
“In truth, this dam, the repair, is so recent that I don’t really worry in a flood event that this dam is going to fail,” said Schacht, an organic farmer.
Schacht said he has already been working a little with DEEP on an emergency action plan. There are several homes and structures downstream that could be affected if there’s a problem. In a 100-year storm, his dam would pass 10,000 gallons per second from the man-made lake, which holds about 190 million gallons of water, he said.
Schacht said one of his only concerns about the new legislation is making sure the dam inspections will be consistent.
“I think that there’s a potential for a lot of diverse information coming into the state,” he said. “So I would hope that they would standardize and provide that standardization to us dam owners so we at least have a model to go by.”
Chase said DEEP still needs to rewrite regulations and develop standardized forms for inspections. Also, the agency is considering holding classes for civil engineers to make sure they have proper training in dam safety and maintenance issues.
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