Globe Editorial

Torpedo the dams — to prevent more floods

Engineer Edward Hughes checks the Forge Pond Dam in Freetown, which will be breached next week. Engineer Edward Hughes checks the Forge Pond Dam in Freetown, which will be breached next week. (George Rizer/ Globe Staff)
March 31, 2010

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DAMS ARE a foul-weather threat that could be eliminated with more fair-weather activism: There would be much less risk to life and property from dam collapses in Massachusetts if public and private owners of these structures would systematically remove those that are no longer serving a useful purpose.

State officials have had to bring on engineers from private firms to keep abreast of the 39 dams at greatest risk of failure during this month’s heavy rains. These are among a total of 308 dams classified by the state as posing a “high hazard’’ to residents or property.

Massachusetts needs a systematic process of eliminating those that are no longer protecting against floods, generating electricity, or providing drinking water. Some of the privately owned dams were built to provide lakefront building sites for second-home projects that never materialized.

Of the 308 most worrisome dams, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation owns 56, towns and cities own 186, and the rest are in private hands. Municipalities are responsible for inspecting and maintaining their own dams. They would be in a better position to do this if the Legislature would approve a bill creating a $20 million revolving loan fund for communities to dip into for repair or removal of dams. Private dam owners who let a structure deteriorate to a dangerous degree face the prospect of prosecution by the state attorney general, as has happened in six cases.

Public or private, removal should be the default position, unless a dam is genuinely still needed. DCR head Rick Sullivan, who is about to have a contractor take down an unrepaired, privately owned dam in Freetown, said he “absolutely’’ supports more removals. They also have the backing of environmentalists, who favor the restoration of natural stream habitat. But the greatest beneficiary of dam removals would be public safety and state and local public finances. A breached dam is no threat to burst and no longer requires costly inspection or maintenance.

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