The heavy rains of the past three weeks have given rise to reawakened concerns about the condition of the State’s dams. Fortunately, legislation under consideration by the General Court will provide an innovative method of financing needed dam improvements and eliminate some high-hazard dam threats.
You will recall, during the week of October 6, 2005, tremendous rainfalls left many parts of the state submerged in as much as 16 inches of water. A state of emergency was declared in more than 43 communities. In particular, conditions with high-hazard dams posed an immediate threat to life and property in six communities. The greatest threat occurred in Taunton where a privately owned dam in the heart of the City threatened to buckle with the huge rainfall. Local officials ordered the evacuation of more than 2,000 people from homes near the dam. Taunton businesses were closed in the entire downtown area.
Recognizing the potential for future disasters from breached dams, the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight under the leadership of its Chairman, Senator Marc Pacheco, held hearings and in May, 2006, and issued its report entitled ” DECADES OF NEGLECT-Recommendations to Improve Dam Safety and Maintenance in Massachusetts”. According to the Report:
“Nearly 3,000 dams exist throughout the Commonwealth…. Unsafe dams can damage private property, decimate public infrastructure and pollute local ponds with contaminated sediments. A dam failure can cost a community tens of millions of dollars in emergency repairs, cripple businesses and even result in the loss of life. Given the potential impact on communities, dam safety and maintenance should be a top priority for the state.”
According to the Office of Dam Safety, more than 50% of the Commonwealth’s dams are privately owned. In 2003, the American Society of Civil Engineers identified 333 high-hazard dams in Massachusetts, whose failure would likely cause loss of life. There are at least 40 state determined deficient dams in Massachusetts. A 2003 estimate was that it would cost $143.5 million to handle improvements for the most critical dams. With respect to the privately owned dams, Chapter 330 of the Acts of 2002, made owners financially and legally liable for the maintenance, repairs and, if necessary, removal of their dams.
Unfortunately, Chapter 330 does not address the need to provide financing for privately owned dam improvements. Some private dams have been abandoned for years while the owners of others lack the financial ability to repair these threats to the public welfare. The Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight did recommend an innovative approach by proposing the creation of a State Revolving Loan Fund in the amount of $20,000,000 to provide loans to private dam owners. This recommendation, unfortunately, has not been adopted. Moreover, the cost to repair these dams would be far in excess of $20,000,000.
What are we to do? Adopt the MORE Infrastructure Program-Chapter 40T. The many proponents of H. 159 and S. 146 creating this program, strongly suggest that the adoption of this legislation will provide an important financing and management tool to assist with the remediation of many dams, both privately owned and perhaps public as well. The relevant features of the MORE Infrastructure Program are as follows:
The definition of infrastructure improvements that may be financed specifically includes “dams”.
The optional use of Local Improvement Districts provides a method to assume public ownership/management of private dams without subjecting the Commonwealth or any city or town to liability. Management of a Local Improvement District could be in the hands of local officials or the property owners.
Dam improvements will be financed by special assessments placed on the real estate benefiting from the removal of the threat posed by a breached dam.
The legislation provides a totally local option requiring the approval of the benefited property owners and the local city or town following a fully-noticed public hearing.
No public funds from the Commonwealth or local community are required. However, a Local Improvement District could, at the option of the city or town and the Commonwealth, access additional funding under various State programs such as PWED, the proposed State Revolving Loan Fund and District Improvement Financing.
The financing of dam improvements represents only one use of the MORE Infrastructure Program. It will also be used to fund a portion of the huge infrastructure needs of existing neighborhoods as well as those of new residential and commercial projects desired by our towns and cities. However, this use to finance needed dam improvements is most critical in terms of removing threats to life and property.