Dams need hundreds of millions in repairs

The Lake Flower dam is the only High-Hazard dam in Franklin County, which means that a failure of the dam could result in widespread economic and environmental damage, as well as loss of human life. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

SARANAC LAKE — Dams across the state — including local ones like the Lake Flower dam — will be in need of hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs soon, but the state comptroller warns that the actual cost of dam repairs could be much higher.

In a new report issued by New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the state says that of the 213 High Hazard dams that are either owned or co-owned by local municipalities, few have a condition rating.

In Franklin County, there are eight dams that fall under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and only the Lake Flower dam in Saranac Lake is rated as High-Hazard. This rating is does not mean the dam is in danger of failing, rather that “a dam failure may result in widespread or serious damage to home(s), damage to main highways … or substantial environmental damage, such that the loss of human life or widespread substantial economic loss is likely,” according to comptroller’s inventory of dams.

The rest of the dams in Franklin County — including the Franklin Falls dam and two dams in Malone — are rated as Intermediate-Hazard dams, in which the failure may result in more isolated damage, and where “loss of human life is not expected.”

In Essex County, three of 12 dams are rated as High-Hazard, including the Lake George outlet dam. However, the Lower Ausable Lake and Wilmington dams are rated as Intermediate-Hazard.

DiNapoli’s report found that, despite new regulations that came into effect in 2009, many High-Hazard dams lack an engineering assessment [EA] that should be completed at least once a decade. When no EA has been conducted, the DEC cannot effectively rate the soundness of dams.

Only one dam in Franklin County is rated, and the Forge dam in the town of Belmont is rated as unsound. Although the Lake Flower dam lacks a rating, there is an emergency action plan on file. Two of the dams in Essex County — the Kingdom dam in the town of Elizabethtown [No deficiencies noted] and the Penfield Pond dam in Crown Point [unsound] — have ratings. According to DiNapoli, ratings of “unsound” and “not rated” are due to the lack of a current EA.

While the report notes that none of the 5,352 dams in the state are rated as “unsafe,” which means the dam could be in imminent danger of failing, DiNapoli said the lack of EAs means that local municipalities that own or co-own dams could be on the hook for upwards of $360 million.

But DiNapoli also warns the cost may become much higher.

“The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates the cost for these types of repairs in New York at $360 million,” a press release from the comptroller’s office says. “But this estimate could be low given that the recent reconstruction of the Gilboa Dam in Schoharie County, which was completed in 2014, alone cost $138 million.”

In response to the lack of EAs and structural ratings, DiNapoli has three recommendations for local governments that own or co-own dams. First is to ensure that engineering assessments and emergency action plans are updated regularly. Second is that municipalities should include dam maintenance and repair as part of long-term financial forecasts and planning, and that local officials should raise awareness of other dams — those upstream of communities — that could affect residents.