Repairs to Upper Bondsville Dam in Belchertown imminent

  • Water from the Swift River flows Tuesday over the Upper Bondsville Dam in Belchertown. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A warning sign at the Upper Bondsville Dam, Tuesday. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 08, 2018

BELCHERTOWN — A decade after the state deemed the Upper Bondsville Dam spanning the Swift River a “significant hazard” to the public, repairs are nearing realization.

The Belchertown Land Trust, which owns the dam, is meeting with two conservation commissions this month to go over the project proposal and secure a final permit.

State money has been set aside and, if repairs are approved, the work could be completed within three weeks, according to William Fay, president of the Belchertown Land Trust.

The dam spans the lower Swift River flowing from the Quabbin Reservoir, about 1.5 miles upstream from Jabish Brook. It is bordered by Belchertown, Palmer and Ware. The dam’s impoundment area, a lake-like surface, is about 60 acres.

“This has become a very important river for recreational purposes,” Fay said. “It’s a remarkable site to come down here on a weekend in the summer and see how many people are using this river.”

Of the 1,454 state-regulated dams in Massachusetts, 290 have “high hazard” potential, meaning failure could result in loss of life. The Bondsville dam is a high hazard dam in poor condition, according to the Office of Dam Safety. It either needs to be fixed or removed.

On Feb. 26, the Belchertown Conservation Commission met with the Palmer Conservation Commission to discuss Fay’s plans to repair the over 115-year-old dam. Fay, who lives along the river and is the project’s pro bono engineer, drafted the plans, which include sealing leaking cracks, widening a floodwater spillway, a new canoe portage, pouring an additional concrete wall and filling a hole in the river bed below the dam.

For the project to begin, the trust needs approval from the Belchertown and Palmer conservation commissions to acquire the final Chapter 91 permit from the Department of Environmental Protection.

“The reason we’re here is because we really love the Swift River and we feel that we are environmentalists,” Fay said at the joint meeting. “We want you, the two towns, to tell us how to do this in an environmentally acceptable manner.”

The background

The Belchertown Land Trust, then a public entity, bought the property in January 2006, intending to clean up the adjoining former factory site and turn it into a park, according to Daniel Beaudette, an attorney for the trust.

“As soon as the land trust stepped into those shoes the DEP showed up and the Office of Dam Safety slapped a consent order on us to fix the dam,” Beaudette said. “Now we’re under legal order to fix the dam.”

In 2008, the Office of Dam Safety deemed the dam a “significant hazard” in poor structural condition and instructed the land trust to either repair or remove the dam, or face steep daily fines. According to Fay, the trust did not know it was taking on the huge liability of a dam in disrepair.

When the trust considered dismantling the dam, the Swift River Preservation Association filed a lawsuit against the trust.

In May 2011, the association staged a “boat-in” in to demonstrate its support for keeping the dam intact. Over 50 residents took their boats, kayaks and canoes out on the waterway with signs in support of the cause.

The association dropped the suit in June 2012 after learning that the trust lacked the money to repair the structure, then joined forces with the trust. All of the land trust board members resigned, Fay organized an entirely new board, and the trust split with the town, becoming a nonprofit organization.

“They dropped the lawsuit because a kindred spirit took over the reins of the Belchertown Land Trust,” Fay said.

State Sen. Stephen Brewer, then head of the Massachusetts Senate Committee on Ways and Means, earmarked $350,000 for the dam for the 2013 fiscal year. About $330,000 of the grant remains after paying for permit application fees and a scientific assessment of the bedrock surrounding the dam.

The environmental consulting firm Milone & MacBroom estimated in 2010 that repairs to the Bondsville Dam would cost about $425,000, while removing the dam would cost about $366,000. A separate study estimated repairs would cost $483,800 and removal $465,000.

The land trust anticipates fundraising to cover project expenses beyond the $330,000 left from the state, and the $6,500 annually needed to upkeep the dam.

“We’re content being the caretakers of the dam and making sure that it’s in proper condition,” Fay, a professional hydroelectric dam engineer with over 40 years experience, said. “If you stay on top of it it’s really not very expensive to take care of a dam.”

However, with a limited budget, the Belchertown Land Trust has no room for mistakes or unforeseen expenses.

“We don’t know if there’s going to be enough money to cover everything down the line,” Beaudette said. “We have no money for contingency.”

Final steps

Beaudette said in the event of a 500-year flood, the dam in its current condition is not going to be able to hold all the water that is expected to go over.

“It will be topped and water will go around dam instead of over it,” he said. “These days with global warming who knows how much water we’re going to be getting.”

The Feb. 26 meeting concluded with the Belchertown and Palmer conservation commissions agreeing to meet for a site assessment on March 16 at the Upper Bondsville Dam, at 3 p.m. The two commissions will then meet separately on March 19 and 20 for meetings to gather public comment and further discussion. The Belchertown Conservation Commission’s meeting will be held March 19 at 7 p.m. in Town Hall.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com