Public Health & Recreation

DEM’s Underfunded, Understaffed Dam Safety Program Does Little to Prevent Disaster


Environmental engineer Stacey Pinto is one of only two full-time employees of Rhode Island's Dam Safety Program, which oversees some 600 dams. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

JOHNSTON, R.I. — Looking at the Almy Reservoir Dam from his lakeside property, Ken Thompson thought about all the destruction that would happen if the hulking structure — the only thing keeping the reservoir in place — gave way.

Millions of fish dead, property downstream washed away, possibly even human lives lost if the high-hazard dam, which has been considered unsafe for years, stopped holding up.

“It would be a big problem for people and property,” he said.

Thompson is lucky to live above the dam, on the end of the reservoir created out of flooded farm pasture in the 1920s. For others, the issue hits a little bit closer to home.

Susan, who lives in the neighborhood around the dam and asked that her last name be withheld for privacy, has had what she calls “ponds” develop behind her house, which is adjacent to Dry Brook, a stream connected to the reservoir. She wonders if the issue could be related to the dam, but isn’t sure.

“I know it could be pretty catastrophic” if the dam failed, she said.

At the end of 2021, the latest report data available on the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s website, Almy was one of 33 unsafe high-hazard dams in the state.

Although the state knows the dams are unsafe, there isn’t a lot that is done about it.

According to DEM’s own reports, the agency’s Dam Safety Program has been underfunded for decades and unable to accomplish and enforce all its mandates. The program only sees increases in funding and staffing after serious floods or dam failures, which are rare but do happen.

‘Half a person’

There are more than 600 dams scattered throughout Rhode Island, and although DEM doesn’t own all of them, it is responsible for inspecting them, keeping track of their improvements, and enforcing state laws that require dam owners to keep them in safe condition.

Most of the state’s dams are low hazard and wouldn’t cause much damage if they failed. The types of dams that the program focuses on are the kind that would destroy huge amounts of property (significant hazard) or could result in death (high hazard).

dam with stone wall
The Almy Reservoir Dam in Johnston was marked an unsafe high-hazard dam in its most recent inspection. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

Of the 173 significant-hazard and high-hazard dams, DEM focuses most of its attention on those that are unsafe, with high-hazard dams being the program’s “highest priority,” according to DEM.

A dam can be classified unsafe for a number of reasons upon inspection, or because an inspection couldn’t be performed.

Vegetation was cited as the most common problem for unsafe dams in DEM’s latest report. Vegetation either prevented an inspection from occurring or impacted the functionality of 19 of 21 high-hazard dams with known owners in the state.

Outlet issues were cited for 14 of those dams; 10 dams’ outlets were inoperable and four more dams’ outlets’ operationality was marked as unknown. Ten dams also had issues with spillways.

DEM is supposed to perform a visual inspection of significant- and high-hazard dams for these safety issues every five years and two years, respectively. To meet these standards, DEM would have to inspect 48 high-hazard dams and 16 significant-hazard dams every year — but it frequently does not meet this goal.

The issue is largely staffing and funding, according to DEM reports and Stacey Pinto, one of two environmental engineers working full time at DEM’s Dam Safety Program.

If there was one or two more people on the team, she said there would be a lot more the agency could do.

“I’d take anything,” she said. “I’d take a half a person.”

Pinto became a dam inspector because of a small disaster.

Following the historic floods of 2010 and the resulting five dam failures, she was moved from septic inspection to part-time dam inspection.

“That was a mess,” she said.

According to DEM reports, staffing, funding, and awareness typically only increase after something bad happens.

In January 1998, a dam failed in South Kingstown, destroying personal property and washing away part of Route 108. The incident sparked action. The dam inspector position at DEM, which had been vacant for two and a half years, was filled. Editorials were written. A task force was formed in 2001 and stricter policies were put in place.

But in every report since then, including reports following the 2010 floods, which also drew major media attention and some increase in staffing, DEM still states that it is understaffed.

The program currently has 2.15 staff — between two full-time inspectors and part-time administrators — up from 1.1 in 2001.

“Taking into account the staff resources currently available in the Dam Safety Program, the work is prioritized and not all of the aspects of the program are completed at the frequency outlined in the regulations,” according to the program’s most recent report.

A version of this statement is written in every report going back to 2001.

Costly repairs

On top of a lack of staff for inspections, there is little money for owners to complete the often very costly repairs to make dams safe.

Some dams are state owned — by DEM or the Department of Transportation — others are owned by municipalities and water supply companies, private individuals, and some don’t have owners at all.

DEM has the most control over its own dams.

water flows over damn with homes in the background
The Silver Spring Lake Dam in South Kingstown was recently repaired using a patchwork of funds. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

In the past few years, DEM has been working to fix its own high-hazard dams. Since the last safety report, many have been repaired, such as Silver Spring Lake Dam in South Kingstown, through various funding schemes.

Pinto pointed to different repairs on the embankment and spillway of the dam: new riprap to prevent erosion and large rocks placed below the dam that would slow any major influx of water from the structure itself or runoff from a heavy storm.

The repairs cost $1.4 million, according to DEM chief of planning and development Megan DiPrete. Federal grant money, state bond money, and Rhode Island Capital (RICAP) funds financed the project.

Grants take time to apply for and aren’t always enough to finance an entire project. The federal grant was $114,943, a little more than 8% of the overall cost of the repairs.

Although legislation has enabled individuals to apply for funding through the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, the relative burden is even higher for them.

DEM has on many occasions fought for years with owners over unaddressed, unsafe conditions.

The Almy Dam in Johnston is owned by the town, according to DEM. The agency deems the dam high hazard because of the highly populated area it would affect if it failed.

Almy Dam is marked unsafe in its most recent safety report because vegetation prevented an inspection, the low-level outlet was “inoperable,” and the spillway wasn’t functioning properly.

Years of reports show DEM’s efforts to get the town to complete repairs: issuing a notice of violation in 2010 and entering a consent agreement in 2013, for which deadlines have since passed.

The most challenging dams to repair are the ones without owners. DEM listed 12 unsafe high-hazard dams without owners in its last report, two of which are considered orphan dams that through title search are found to legally not have an owner.

The Grist Mill Dam in Warwick is one of these orphaned structures.

Title records show reference to the dam as early as 1871. It’s a stone dam that once powered a mill and now sits among apartments named after it.

Pinto pointed to vegetation along the embankment, water where it should not have been coming from, and debris blocking some flow into the spillway. It’s categorized as unsafe but without anyone responsible to make repairs.

Pinto said as a last resort DEM will reach out to abutters in these instances and see if anyone would be willing to contribute to repairs.

According to the 2021 dam report, DEM reached out to Warwick, which has not “expressed any interest and the dam remains unmaintained.”

water flows over a dam
The Grist Mill Dam in Warwick is considered an orphan structure. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News)

It would be difficult for DEM to pay for repairs itself — taking care of its own dams is expensive enough.

“We don’t have the funds for repairs,” Pinto said. “We don’t have any money.”

Pinto said more and more dams will become high hazard as development increases and more people move into areas that are in dams’ flood zones.

The process is called hazard creep, and the reclassification of lower hazard dams to meet their actual potential danger will be another drain on the program without more help.

Some legislation has been passed to try to make the state’s dams safer.

Last year two dam-related bills were signed into law. One requires that the Building Code Standards Committee consider the impact climate change and more intense storms will have on dam inundation zones. The other will create an emergency notification system for dams and allow DEM to assess fines for municipalities that don’t create emergency action plans for their dams.

A third bill that didn’t pass would have created a fund to repair or remove unsafe high-hazard dams that didn’t have a known owner or had owners that couldn’t afford the costs.

“I just want people to be more aware that, you know, we have these features out there,” Pinto said. “They’re beautiful. But they can also be dangerous, I want people to enjoy them. But I also want people to be safe around them.”

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Recent Comments

  1. In my humble opinion, dams are dead! Begin draining these high hazard impoundments slowly now and let’s get these dams out and free up our rivers. Spending money re-furbishing dams is wasting money and causing negative environmental impacts. The time is now to remove dams. Especially if they are high hazard and in bad shape.

  2. As usual the state establishes and enforces mandates upon the towns without the support of funding. The repair and maintenance of dams is a very costly business which would likely also involve permitting from, and plan submission to, DEM. Many of these dams are decades, if not centuries, old and in many cases predate the towns they are in. Many are owned by private individuals or HOA’s and they need to be held accountable for their upkeep.

  3. I have been saying for decades that these unsafe obsolete dams must be removed to allow the unimpeded flow of the waterways. . Dams are being removed all over the country but in Rhode Island it is one excuse after another.
    Most environmental groups especially along the Blackstone River. I remember meetings at the State House when Mike Sullivan was Director of RIDEM. With Frank Geary doing the heavy lifting Frank, myself and Ray Lippe met with Mike Sullivan to discuss fish passage on the first three dams on the Blackstone River. The consensus of opinion was that we would have a meeting of all stakeholders to discuss this.
    Again Frank Geary took the lead .
    We had a meeting with all the stakeholders and we decided to ask for a commitment from the state and NRCS a division of the USDA funding was supposedly secured and we had one of those ceremonies where the big check in this case somewhere in the seven figures from the State of Rhode Island and I forget the amount from NRCS but it was substantial.
    I have many times on occasion asked what has happened with that funding but never got the response I was looking for.
    When we started this project I told Ray and Frank that I was looking forward to this happening dating back to the days when I was a child and again in earnest when John Chaffee was running for the Senate and we were standing on the old Court Street bridge in Woonsocket.
    We were looking at the water flowing in different colors and John asked me if I knew what was causing it.
    I told him it was the dye houses the river flowed whatever color they were dying cloth that day. I then told John about the Salmon and Herring that once occupied the River and he promised me that when he was elected he’d make it his priority to get the River ckean.
    John did his share and I have been hold my breath for many decades to get anadromous and diadromous fish back in the River. I don’t have many days left I’m 73 and still hope to see this accomplished before I die.

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