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NY Congressman Pushes For Enhanced Dam Safety

NYS DEC Region 5

Following a series of dam collapses in South Carolina due to severe weather this week,  there’s a call for passage of legislation to maintain and upgrade hazardous dams, including hundreds in New York State.

Heavy rains have saturated the Carolinas, a surge that's been dubbed "a one-thousand year event."  According to SC Educational TV, some 300 roads and 166 bridges across South Carolina were closed due to flooding. Eighteen dams in the state have breached or failed, as officials eye other dams nervously.

Hudson Valley Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney says one high-hazard dam outside of Columbia had last been inspected in 2000 even though it was required to receive inspections every three years according to Army Corps records. He's taking steps to tighten the rules.  "We should wait until it's too late. We should not wait for flooding like we see now in South Carolina to take place for us to act."

More than 800 dams dot Maloney's home turf in the Hudson Valley. He is proposing legislation that would help fund routine dam maintenance, inspection and rehabilitation, in hopes of deflecting any disaster that may rival what happened down south.  "My program would only focus grant dollars on the most critical, publicly owned dams across the country, with two-thirds of the funds in my bill going to states with the highest number of high-hazard dams. In other words, we would put the resources where the greatest need exists.  This would be a matching program, so that 75 percent of the funds would be federal and 25 per cent would be provided by the state or local communities. And it would provide a total 800 million dollars in grants over the first five years."

Casey Dinges is managing director of public affairs, membership and marketing for the American Society of Civil Engineers.    "While 50 years ago, dams were built with the best engineering and construction standards of the time, scientific and engineering data have improved and it is important to make the investment and modernize this crucial infrastructure. Furthermore, many dams are not expected to safely withstand current predictions regarding large flood and earthquake events. In addition, the number of high hazard dams continues to increase as our population rises and there's greater development below dams. Many dams, that when built, were considered low hazard, are now classified a high hazard dams because of additional development below dams."

New York State has 403 dams classified as “high hazard.”  A small earthquake that recently shook the area near the Gilboa Dam reminded Schoharie Valley officials and residents to be prepared for the unexpected.

Gilboa, and other system dams that affect the New York City watershed, are under the watchful eye of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Water Supply.  The small shaker didn't affect the structure. Adam Bosch is DEP's director of public affairs. "We have a very good idea, on an almost real-time basis, of what's going on."

In September, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials recognized the $138 million Gilboa Dam reconstruction project as "National Rehabilitation Project of the Year." "It's the most prestigious dam award in the United States. It was just awarded that. So we've got obviously a very strong for all intents and purposes brand new dam up there in Gilboa that's well-instrumented."

Mark Ogden, with the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, backs the congressman's proposed legislation:  "In our December 2012 update of our report entitled 'The cost of rehabilitating our nation's dams' estimates the total cost of rehabilitating the nation's high-hazard potential dams is approximately 18.2 billion dollars. 11.2 for publicly owned and 7 billion for privately owned. So the funding provided in Representative Maloney's bill will help to address this gap and resolve the most critical public safety need."

During Hurricane Irene, in Orange County, officials ordered evacuations of neighborhoods in the potential path of flooding below dams at the Warwick Reservoir and in the towns of Deer Park, Blooming Grove and Tuxedo.

Farther upstate, New York's Department of Environmental Conservation has looked into modifying several dams, including the Imperial Dam on the Saranac River, by adjusting heights of spillways and building fish ladders, among other measures. And a few older structures may come down.  The Marcy Dam on Marcy Brook, a wooden structure erected during the logging era, was a popular stop for hikers and campers making their way to and from the Adirondack High Peaks. It was damaged in 2011 by Tropical Storm Irene. Deconstruction is expected to be completed by 2020.

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