Explorer investigation spotlights safety needs of Adirondack structures
By Zachary Matson
Dams shape the physical and social landscape of the Adirondack Park and pose a growing safety risk as they age and storms grow in severity.
State inspectors have found numerous hazardous dams in the Adirondack Park are deficient or owners have failed to meet deadlines to study their condition, according to an Adirondack Explorer review of dam safety.
While state officials in the past decade have tightened rules, some dam owners are often tardy in meeting safety requirements and arranging fixes. Many owners have failed to comply with directives to evaluate their structure’s condition, and the regulators often neglect to compel action.
Over 500 dams dot the Adirondack Park, owned by an array of municipalities, state agencies, organizations and private citizens. Some of the park’s riskiest structures are owned by towns; leaders in those communities say they need more state support to update the dams.
Donald Canestrari, director of the Department of Environmental Conservation’s dam safety division, in an interview said state inspectors were working to catch up on delays from the pandemic. While acknowledging a large share of dam owners are out of compliance with state regulations, he said state inspectors were focusing on the riskiest structures and that nearly all high-hazard dams had received required engineering assessments.
A review of dam safety lessons in other states, often following a catastrophe, highlighted a menu of policy options to strengthen efforts in New York. Heavy rainfall during the summer served as a potent reminder of the risk so many dams pose. A dam in Long Lake failed, draining a pond, flooding nearby roads and adding up to a costly repair.
This year also marked progress on some major river restoration projects involving dam removal on the Saranac River, where anglers and conservationists have championed dam removal for many years to bolster salmon restoration initiatives. In the backcountry, a handful of deteriorating dams raise questions about the meaning of wilderness.
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