Widespread flood injury prompted New England states to reevaluate levees and canals

Estimated read time 6 min read

Flooding in Massachusetts this week, which put some levees in danger, has raised issues that the constructions might be more and more susceptible because the area experiences stronger and wetter storms.

There are literally thousands of dams all through New England, lots of which had been constructed a long time, if not centuries, in the past, typically to assist energy textile mills, retailer water, or present irrigation for farms. The concern is that they’ve outlived their usefulness, and that local weather change might carry storms they had been by no means constructed to face up to.

“Once they had been constructed, the local weather was totally different. The storm design was totally different,” stated Robert Kearns, a local weather resilience specialist on the Charles River Watershed Affiliation.

Cairns famous that Leominster, Massachusetts, acquired practically 11 inches of rain over a number of hours Monday night time. At the least two of the town’s 24 dams practically collapsed this week, prompting the town to suggest residents evacuate earlier than the risk subsides.

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He added: “This infrastructure, the canals, the dams, weren’t constructed to match the amount of water that we see and can proceed to see sooner or later.”

A federal database lists practically 4,000 dams in New England, 176 of that are categorised as high-risk constructions and are both in poor or unsatisfactory situation. If these dams fail, they are going to pose a hazard to individuals residing downstream in addition to to roads, neighborhoods and key infrastructure reminiscent of water remedy vegetation.

An excavator removes sidewalk in entrance of a flood-damaged property on September 13, 2023. (Robert F. Bukaty)

An Related Press investigation in 2022 discovered that the variety of high-risk dams is rising: greater than 2,200 nationwide, a big rise from the same AP evaluation three years in the past. The quantity is probably going increased, though it’s unclear as a result of some states don’t monitor knowledge and lots of federal companies refuse to launch particulars about dam situations.

In a 2019 AP investigation, a evaluation of inspection studies discovered a number of issues on the dams, together with leaks that point out inner failure, unrepaired erosion, holes from burrowing animals and widespread tree progress, which may destabilize the dams. Dust. In some circumstances, inspectors famous that spillways had been too small to deal with the quantity of water that might be generated by more and more extreme rainstorms.

A part of the problem is that policymakers have lengthy ignored dam security, requiring many international locations to run their dam security packages on shoestring budgets, and repairs can take years. Advocates additionally say many packages lack transparency, so communities could not even know a harmful dam upstream poses a danger, whereas others complain that dam security officers have been sluggish to acknowledge the specter of local weather change.

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“We aren’t seeing the shift in mindset round dams that we needs to be seeing in mild of the large modifications we’re seeing from local weather change by way of notably extra intense storms,” stated Emily Norton, govt director of the Charles River Watershed. organized. “We consider there must be a larger sense of urgency round assessing and eradicating dams.”

Christine Hatch, a hydrogeologist on the College of Massachusetts Amherst, stated Massachusetts must conduct a statewide evaluation of dams to find out how finest to spend its restricted sources.

“The truth of local weather change is that all the things we thought was secure sufficient after we constructed it’s now not secure sufficient,” Hatch stated. “There’s not sufficient cash to upsize or modernize all of these.”

Hatch stated an evaluation is required to find out which dams are essential and that are harmful.

New England has seen many dam failures through the years.

Greater than 50 have failed in New Hampshire over the previous century, together with the Meadow Pond Dam, which collapsed in 1996, killing a lady and flooding a neighborhood. There have been about 70 of them in Vermont, together with the 1947 East Pittsford Dam collapse that devastated Rutland.

5 of them failed in Rhode Island throughout a 2010 storm, prompting the state to examine all dam spillways. A 2019 research discovered {that a} quarter of the state’s high-risk dams could not survive a 100-year storm — an occasion with a 1% probability of occurring in a given yr — and 17% could not survive a 500-year storm, which has a 0.2 probability. % of their incidence per yr.

A number of dams practically failed in Vermont this summer time attributable to heavy flooding, together with dams that might have submerged elements of the capital, Montpelier.

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey stated Wednesday that the administration is monitoring dams throughout the state.

“We have already been monitoring dam situations in a number of communities. Our Workplace of Dam Security has been on the bottom, notably in Leominster, for a number of days to take fast motion by working with others to verify these levees are backed up. However that is one thing we’re backing up,” Healey stated. We’ll maintain watching.”

Healy warned of accelerating losses brought on by local weather change. A collection of latest storms, together with heavy rains in July that flooded farms in western Massachusetts, have highlighted the significance of strengthening the state’s defenses, she stated.

“This clearly speaks to the necessity for the federal funding I’m searching for, in addition to the necessity for continued investments in resilience and infrastructure as we’ve got seen the devastating outcomes of those storms,” she stated. “What we have seen with these storms, which is totally different, is that they will activate a dime. The foundations of the sport cannot be the identical.”

Barrett Park Pond Dam, positioned on a 9-acre pond in Leominster, suffered intensive injury throughout this week’s flooding. State officers stated the collapse of the dam, which dates again to the 1800s, could have despatched water right into a residential neighborhood down the hill.


The dam was final inspected in 2021 and located to be in poor situation. Town acquired a $163,500 grant for repairs however was nonetheless within the design section when the floods hit.

“The excellent news is that the 24 dams have held up,” stated Arthur Elbithall, Leominster’s director of emergency administration, including that the proposed repairs ought to cross via the price range course of in time.

“I do know what we’ve got right here is one thing we are able to construct on,” he stated. “Completely, we have to maintain it. … Every bit of infrastructure, whether or not it is a highway or a sewer line or a dam, we’re all the time trying to get it mounted and working because it ought to. I do not see any change in that now.”

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