Recent floods in Massachusetts have raised concerns about the safety of dams across New England, as the region is increasingly hit by stronger and wetter storms. Many of these dams were built decades ago to support textile mills, store water, or supply irrigation to farms, but experts now worry that they may not be able to withstand the storms brought on by climate change. Robert Kearns, a climate resilience specialist, explained that these dams were not designed for the volume of water that the region is experiencing and will continue to experience in the future.
The Associated Press conducted an investigation in 2022 and found that the number of high-hazard dams in the United States has been on the rise, with more than 2,200 nationwide. In New England alone, there are nearly 4,000 dams, with 176 categorized as high-hazard structures in poor or unsatisfactory condition. If these dams were to fail, they would pose a risk to people living downstream, as well as roads, neighborhoods, and key infrastructure such as water treatment plants.
The 2019 AP investigation also revealed numerous problems with these dams, including leaks, erosion, holes from burrowing animals, and extensive tree growth. Additionally, some dams were found to have spillways too small to handle the amount of water that could result from increasingly intense rainstorms. The issue of dam safety has been long ignored by policymakers, leading to underfunded dam safety programs in many states. As a result, repairs can take years to complete. Lack of transparency in these programs also means that communities may not be aware of the potential risks posed by nearby dams.
Emily Norton, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, emphasized the need for a shift in mindset regarding dam assessment and removal in light of climate change. She argued that there should be a greater sense of urgency in evaluating the safety of dams. Christine Hatch, a hydrogeologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, suggested that a statewide dam assessment is necessary to determine how limited resources should be allocated. She stressed that the reality of climate change means that the safety standards that were once considered acceptable are no longer sufficient.
New England has experienced several dam failures over the years, including more than 50 in New Hampshire and about 70 in Vermont. The failure of the East Pittsford Dam in Vermont in 1947 resulted in devastating flooding in Rutland. Rhode Island also faced dam failures during a storm in 2010, leading to an examination of all dam spillways in the state. A study conducted in 2019 found that a quarter of high-hazard dams in Rhode Island could not withstand a 100-year storm, and 17% could not survive a 500-year storm.
In Massachusetts, the recent floods caused significant damage to the Barrett Park Pond Dam in Leominster. Built in the 1800s, the dam was found to be in poor condition during its last inspection in 2021. Despite receiving a grant for repairs, the city was still in the design phase when the flooding occurred. The failure of this dam could have resulted in water flowing into a residential neighborhood downhill.
Maura Healey, Massachusetts' Attorney General, expressed the need for federal funding and continued investments in resilience and infrastructure to mitigate the effects of climate change. She emphasized the importance of strengthening the state's defenses in the face of increasingly severe storms. Healey also acknowledged the need for a shift in approach, as the playbook for dealing with these storms cannot remain the same.
Arthur Elbthal, Leominster's director of emergency management, highlighted the importance of paying attention to infrastructure and keeping it repaired and functioning properly. He emphasized the need to continue the budget process for proposed repairs and expressed optimism about building on the existing infrastructure.
Overall, the recent floods in Massachusetts have raised concerns about the safety of dams across New England. Experts are calling for a comprehensive assessment of these dams to determine which ones are essential and which ones pose a risk. With climate change bringing more intense storms, it is crucial to address the vulnerabilities of these aging structures to protect people and critical infrastructure downstream.
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