Municpal dam owners slow to pursue repairs under new state standards
By Zachary Matson
The towns of Dannemora, Bolton, Indian Lake and Chester each own a high hazard dam rated unsound by state inspectors.
Dannemora’s Chazy Lake Dam lacked annual updates to its emergency action plan (EAP) for over a decade. In reports sent to the town’s supervisor every two years between 2013 and 2021, state Department of Environmental Conservation inspectors noted the omissions. “The EAP is long overdue and needs to be expeditiously submitted,” inspectors urged in a 2019 letter.
Some of the park’s municipal dam repair projects have been studied, designed and permitted, but construction remains unfunded as local governments reluctant to invest heavily in dam improvements wait for state and federal support.
The average dam in New York is 86 years old, compared to the national average of 57 years, according to the 2022 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure produced by the American Society of Civil Engineers. “New York’s dams are significantly older than those across the rest of the United States and many of them were built before modern design standards,” the organization wrote. Adirondack dams are even older, nearly 90 years old on average.
When the DEC in November announced nearly $565,000 in federal funding for high hazard dams, Chester Supervisor Craig Leggett was hopeful the grants could help cover the cost to reinforce the Loon Lake Dam spillway and resurface the dam and its wing walls —estimated to cost $450,000 more than two years ago. The grants will only cover pre-construction work, so while it may help Chester update its design and cost estimates, Leggett desires another round of grants.
“It’s the finances that we are waiting for right now,” Leggett said. “Nobody knows when.”
Chester wants to be granted at least 80% of the cost. The town, which allocated $50,000 for dam work in its most recent budget, could issue short-term bonds to fund the rest, Leggett added.
Look up the dams near you
Supervisor Ron Conover in Bolton, where the Edgecomb Pond Dam needs a new auxiliary spillway, describes similar circumstances.
“It’s one of those projects that we are sure we are going to get to,” Conover said. “It’s been a struggle to find the resources.”
Indian Lake owns Lake Adirondack Dam, its deterioration evident to all who pass on State Route 28. The town prioritized repairs to the intermediate hazard Lake Abanakee Dam, which controls water releases used to propel the rafting industry through the Hudson River Gorge.
DEC in a statement emphasized that all dam owners, including town governments, are responsible for meeting regulations, regardless of budget constraints.
“The law imposes liability entirely on the owner of a dam, including a municipality that owns a dam,” DEC said. “Inability to pay are not defenses to dam safety violations or successful safety strategies for hard assets that could pose a risk of extensive damage.”
Dams are an odd asset for a town. They often hold up a water supply or important recreational lake and are treasured by the local community. But engineering and construction costs can be astronomical for even small structures. The risks seem remote, the costly needs easy to put off against other priorities. They also come with inundation maps that tell the story of what happens if the dam fails.
The maps, which are attached to the studies and emergency plans of high hazard and intermediate hazard dams, reveal an invisible risk landscape of potential crises across the park. Indian Lake, Chestertown, Bolton, Inlet, Chazy Lake, Garnet Lake, Ticonderoga and Peck Lake all host dams in need of improvement and judged to result in possible death and local catastrophe if they failed. Failure of any of the park’s nearly three dozen high hazard dams could swamp major roads, isolate emergency services, flood homes and damage businesses. In some places, floodwaters could reach schools, municipal buildings, wastewater treatment plants or transfer stations.
If Loon Lake Dam breached during a massive rainstorm, Chester Creek would overwhelm its banks and flood major portions of State Routes 8 and 9, including numerous homes, businesses, churches and municipal buildings in the hamlet of Chestertown, according to engineers.
The Route 9 bridge in Chestertown would be under 17 feet of water, and within five hours of dam failure, the northbound lanes of Interstate 87 near Exit 25 would be topped by four feet of water, according to the dam emergency action plan. The modeled storms are so big much of the flooding would occur even before the dam failed.
Breach scenarios for the Chazy Lake Dam in the park’s northeast corner show that roads nearly a dozen miles downstream would be inundated if it failed.
Explore more: Dam series
See all the articles in our Adirondack dams series
Below Sixth Lake Dam in Inlet, a channel passes under the South Shore Road bridge, bends past the private Marina of Inlet, where boats dock against a retaining wall in summer, and dumps into sprawling Fourth Lake.
If Sixth Lake Dam failed on a clear day, floodwaters would lift water levels at Fifth Lake nearly eight feet within just 15 minutes and overtop the South Shore bridge by a foot, according to inundation maps. The marina sits below the bridge and falls within the dam’s inundation zone. Boats sometimes struggle to maneuver the channel after scheduled releases from the dam; the flood wall in a breach would be catastrophic by comparison.
As he helped with a handful of early-season launches last summer, Rick LeClair, who has worked as a manager at the marina the past decade, said he doesn’t dwell on the worst-case scenario.
“You think about it at one point in your mind,” he said. “Then it’s gone.”
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