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Northampton faces $14.7 million in repairs to dams

  • Middle Roberts damn in Leeds.
  •  West Whately Dam.
  • Ryan dam in  West Whately.
  • Ryan and West Whately Dam.
  • Lower  Roberts dam in Leeds.
  • Middle Roberts damn in Leeds.

The dam analysis is part of the Department of Public Works’ comprehensive look at the city’s infrastructure, an effort that has revealed the need for multimillion-dollar capital improvements across all of its systems.

“We’re trying to do this master planning to get our arms around the city’s infrastructure needs,” said James Laurila, the city’s engineer. “We’re looking at everything.”

That includes inspection of six of the 15 dams in the city under DPW jurisdiction. Most of the work involves shoring up the dams’ spillways so they can withstand storms of disastrous proportions, said Ned Huntley, director of the Department of Public Works.

Half of the dams — the Upper, Middle and Lower Roberts Meadow dams on the Mill River — are considered backup water supplies for the city, though they haven’t been used as such in years. The other three dams are at the city’s primary water supply reservoirs: West Whately, Ryan Road and Mountain Street.

Most of the work does not have to be done immediately, with one exception. The state has labeled the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam off Chesterfield Road in Leeds as “high hazard” because of its poor condition.

“We have to do something about it,” Huntley said.

The BPW opted to demolish the roughly 130-year-old dam two years ago rather than repair it. Earlier this month, officials kick-started the state permitting process by filing an environmental notification form with the state Energy and Environmental Affairs office.

The city would like to begin removing the dam as soon as possible, though officials are awaiting word on a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that would cover about $1 million of the $1.3 million price.

Permitting is expected to take about a year and work is pegged for 2014, Laurila said.

The Upper Roberts Meadow Dam is the only one of the five that the state Office of Dam Safety is requiring the city to take action on. The city opted to take the “temperature and health” of the remaining structures on its own, given their importance to the city’s water supply, Laurila said. All of those structures are in “fair” condition, according to recently completed engineering reports.

“We felt like it was an appropriate thing to do, to manage the risk,” he said.

Repairs follow

Next up are $8.8 million in repairs to dams at the Ryan, West Whately and Mountain Street reservoirs, which impound water that serves as the city’s primary water supply.

While each project has its own issues, engineers who evaluated all of the dams found that spillways don’t have the capacity to handle severe storms that dump a vast amount of water in a short period.

“None of them have adequate spillway capacity to pass a spillway design flood,” Laurila said. That means in severe storms, there is potential that water could crest over the dams and cause damage downstream.

All of the plans call for spillway improvements, some of which involve raising the tops of dams. Of the three dams, Mountain Street and a pair of associated dikes need the most work, at $4.4 million. Dams at the Ryan and West Whately reservoirs need about $2.2 million each. Because these structures are next to each other, Laurila expects the city will issue one contract for the work.

Two other dams also need repairs — the Middle Roberts Meadow Reservoir Dam and Lower Roberts Meadow Reservoir Dam — though they are at the bottom of the priority list because of their backup water supply status.

“With the three reservoirs and two wells, there’s very little need for those (water supplies) at this time,” Laurila said.

The work still needs to be done, but not as quickly, he said. Middle Roberts repairs are pegged at $3 million and Lower Roberts Dam above Musante Beach needs $1.7 million.

Aside from the federal grant for the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam removal, money to repair other city dams will come from the water enterprise fund and ratepayers. There is virtually no state and federal money for dam projects, Huntley said.

“There’s some big numbers that will be hitting the enterprise fund in upcoming years,” he said.

Projects of the magnitude of the dam repairs are typically paid for by bonding construction costs over a 20-year period.

Setting money aside

The BPW will likely set aside several million dollars between fiscal 2014 and 2016 to help pay down the principal and interest costs associated with the loans for the dam projects. Part of that money will come from water rate increases implemented by the BPW in recent years.

In addition to dams, the higher water fees are needed to fund millions in capital projects to the city’s water system. Some of the city’s water mains are 120 years old — twice as old as their life expectancy — and in dire need of repair.

Laurila said he’s not sure if the city will be able to take advantage of a recently announced state loan program to fix municipally owned dams that have been deemed hazardous. Half of the $17 million that is being put into a trust to fund low-interest loans for cities and towns that have at-risk dams will go toward seawall repair, leaving $8.5 million for all other communities to tap into.

He said the city may apply to the state fund for a loan to breach the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam if it does not win the FEMA grant. The BPW has twice voted to tear down the dam, most recently in 2010 after members determined that spending $1.8 million to save it was not cost-effective.

A neighborhood group called Friends of the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam pleaded with the board to save the dam for its aesthetic beauty and to harness its potential for micro-hydropower. The board said the latter idea was not financially feasible.

Public comment

Meanwhile, the city’s environmental notification form for the project asks the state’s Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act, or MEPA, to waive requirements of a larger environmental impact report.

The public can comment on the project through Feb. 22. To comment, write to the Secretary of Energy & Environmental Affairs, 100 Cambridge St., Suite 900, Boston, MA, 02114, Attention: MEPA Office, referencing the Upper Roberts Meadow Reservoir Dam Removal.

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