Small dam owners balk at tighter rules

Schoharie Valley activists and officials were loaded with testimony Friday about potential devastati

Schoharie Valley activists and officials were loaded with testimony Friday about potential devastation if New York City’s giant Gilboa Dam broke, but they were outnumbered at a state hearing by owners of small dams worried they can’t afford tighter regulations.

“All dam owners shall contribute to a state-administered fund to provide for independent engineers to perform periodic dam safety inspections,” recommended Middleburgh resident Sherrie Bartholomew, vice president of Dam Concerned Citizens.

Proposed state Department of Environmental Conservation regulations covering about 5,500 dams statewide leave paying for inspection engineers up to owners.

For thousands of people in Schoharie, Montgomery and Schenectady counties, the 20 billion gallons of water behind the masonry Gilboa Dam at the Schoharie Reservoir, plus another 5 billion gallons downstream behind the New York Power Authority’s earthern dam in North Blenheim, loom as “two sleeping giants,” said Gail Shaffer.

“Due to decades of neglect on the part of the city of New York, this aging [Gilboa] dam was allowed to deteriorate, with virtually no significant maintenance, until its vulnerability came to light in October 2005,” said Shaffer, a Blenheim resident and former state secretary of state.

If it broke, “a giant wall of water would sweep rapidly through the valley, like a tsunami … from Gilboa to Schenectady,” she said.

“It is imperative that the state DEC … should be vigorously inspecting dams for safety,” Shaffer testified.

Flood control measures should also be required even at reservoirs built for water supply like the Schoharie, or power generation such as the Blenheim-Gilboa Reservoir, she said.

Shaffer said the state Canal Corp. should also be held accountable because “in an extreme flood of 2006, they refused to assist with flood mitigation” along the Mohawk River.

But representatives of private associations operating small dams, including Mariaville Lake in Schenectady County, Helderberg Lake in Albany County, Galway Lake in Saratoga County and Garnet Lake in Warren County, protested that the proposed rules are too vague and too costly.

Mother Raphaela, an Orthodox Church of America nun directing Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery near Oneonta, said her group has already spent $20,000 on engineering inspections of a 17-foot-high earthern dam at their pond, but DEC found them unacceptable.

“We were not told why,” she said.

She suggested the Dam Concerned Citizens go statewide to assist in raising funds.

Mariaville Lake manager Sandra Scott said the small dam on the 13-foot-deep lake is listed as a “high-hazard” class dam, the same as the 182-foot high, 1,324-foot wide Gilboa Dam at New York City’s Schoharie Reservoir.

The 110-member Mariaville Civic Association has already spent $7,000 trying to prove it warrants a lower-risk category, Scott said.

“You’re putting these little country dams and ponds and the millions of gallons reservoirs in the same category,” complained Cynthia Beer, representing the 32-member Garnet Lake Civic Association. “I feel like we’re being punished for individuals or municipalities that have not maintained their lakes.”

Beer said beaver dams sometimes cause problems upstream of the lake.

“Can I hold the beavers responsible?” Beer asked in suggesting residents in flood zones downstream of dams buy flood insurance.

“No matter what kind of a dam, [downstream residents] should take responsibility for some of that risk,” she said.

During a break in the hearing, Alon Dominitz, chief of DEC’s dam safety section, said if a dam failure risked killing even one person, the dam could be classified as “high hazard.”

The proposed safety and inspection regulations do not include any provision for funding. High-hazard dams would face detailed engineering inspections at least every two years.

Finding money would be up to the state Legislature, according to Dominitz.

Speaker after speaker called the proposed regulations another “unfunded mandate” by the state.

Several said high costs of engineering or upgrades might force some small lake operators to demolish their dams, potentially causing other environmental damage or loss of wetlands.

“This isn’t a program, it’s a technical mandate,” said Jeffery Parker of the Steuben County Soil and Water District.

“It makes absolutely no sense to me that these regulations should go forward,” testified Nadine Feiden Shadlock, attorney for the Helderberg Lake Community Association.

Dam Concerned Citizens Director Howard R. Bartholomew said he was “very sympathetic” to the plight of small dam owners, and agreed with numerous other speakers that the state should take more responsibility and shoulder more of the costs, including liability for downstream flood damage.

The proposed regulations would absolve the DEC from liability.

“This statement is a blatant evasion on the part of a state agency … to insulate itself and its subordinates … should a dam failure such as that at [Washington County] Hadlock Pond, or God forbid, Gilboa, occur,” Bartholomew said.

“There should probably be two sets of regulations,” said Sherrie Bartholomew after hearing the small-dam operators.

The citizens group formed in November 2005 after reports that the 80-year-old Gilboa Dam was potentially unstable if hit with a record flood.

In 2006, New York City completed a $24 million reinforcement project. A $583 million reconstruction is planned for 2010-2014.

City officials did not testify at Friday’s hearing, the last of three in the state, but plan to submit comments before the May 17 deadline for written submissions, city Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Michael Saucier said.

Although Dam Concerned Citizens propose that dam owners bear part of the cost of setting up the inspection fund, “the amount paid by each dam owner shall be related to the condition of the dam, the dam classification and a rating assigned under a dam-rating system,” Bartholomew said.

Gilboa town Supervisor Anthony VanGlad suggested DEC set up a new 1-10 rating system, with dams posing more risk requiring more frequent inspections. VanGlad chairs the county’s flood committee.

DEC officials will now review comments and consider possible revisions, but there is no deadline for a decision on implementing the regulations, according to Dominitz.

Categories: Schenectady County

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