Lack of Funding, Hard-to-Find Owners Make Dam Repairs Difficult

A total of 73 dams in Rhode Island were classified as unsafe by the end of 2020


The Potter Hill Dam in Westerly, R.I., was originally built in the 1780s and is failing. (Cynthia Drummond)

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Forty-seven dams in Rhode Island classified by the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) as being “high” or “significant” hazards have no clear property owner, making it all but impossible to repair the dams.

Efforts by DEM to work with a title attorney to locate the rightful owners of the orphaned properties in 2020 was unsuccessful. State officials are moving toward addressing Rhode Island’s aging dam infrastructure, but even with additional funding in Gov. Dan McKee’s proposed budget for rehabilitation, without the owners’ involvement the options remain limited.

Time is running out. The extreme flood events in March 2010 caused five dams to fail across the state, and two of those dams — one in Providence and one in Hopkinton — were classified by DEM as “significant” hazards, meaning “failure or misoperation will likely not result in loss of human life, but will cause major economic loss, disruption of lifeline facilities, or impact other concerns detrimental to the public’s health, safety, or wellness,” according to the DEM.

A classification of “high” hazard means that “failure or misoperation will result in a probable loss of human life,” according to the DEM. More than half of high-hazard and significant-hazard dams could weather a 500-year storm event. But 25 percent of high-hazard dams and 36 percent of significant-hazard dams would not survive a 100-year rain event. A total of 73 dams in Rhode Island were classified as unsafe by the end of 2020, according to DEM.

“Not surprisingly, many of them are not designed to handle that kind of water volume,” said David Chopy, administrator of DEM’s Office of Compliance & Inspection. “We’re going to be working on addressing that problem.”

In 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analyzed the possible impact on dams from a storm that dumped 13.5 inches of rain in 24 hours. The resulting storm model, according to DEM, “would have caused record floods on pretty much all major rivers of the state.”

Funding and staff for dam repair is slim. DEM employs only two full-time inspectors to manage the 669 dams in the state, and the agency itself has no dedicated line item for repairs. Dam repairs, even when the owner of a dam is clear, can range from tens of thousands of dollars to millions, and owners don’t always have the money on hand.

Rhode Island has no dedicated funding stream for repairing dams. Funds typically come from a combination of Green Economy bond money, Federal Emergency Management Agency grants, and the state’s budget for capital projects. McKee’s proposed state budget for fiscal 2023 recommends $10.6 million for dam repair from the capital fund over the next five years.

Three new bills introduced in the General Assembly this session by Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, aim to address dam safety. Senate bill S2297 would establish a fund to pay for dam repair or replacement for orphaned or insolvent dams; S2295 would require DEM to create a dam hazard notification system and beef up agency enforcement; and S2294 would require building codes for dams classified high hazard or higher.

“In some places the potential damage from dam failure is catastrophic,” Sosnowski said.

DEM announced this month it was spending $1.2 million to repair Silver Spring Lake Dam in North Kingstown, with construction slated to start in April and finish in March 2023. A 2013 inspection of the high-hazard dam showed overgrown vegetation on the grounds, cracked, spalled and scoured concrete, inoperable low-level water outlets, and damaged masonry walls downstream. State environmental officials classify the dam as unsafe.

DEM will be repairing the stone masonry spillway and the cracked embankment walls. The project will be funded in part from the 2018 Green Economy bond, a 2020 Federal Emergency Management Administration grant, and Rhode Island capital funds. The agency has another four dams classified as unsafe with a high-hazard risk assessment. Similar repairs to the state-owned dam at Upper Wyoming Reservoir are close to “98 percent” completion, according to DEM officials.

The town of Westerly had been considering using $400,000 in COVID-19 relief funds toward demolishing the Potter Hill Mill dam. But the Town Council voted not to approve a new contract with an environmental engineering firm, effectively ending the multi-year project to address the dam, which crosses the Pawcatuck River.

“Thankfully there’s a lot of [federal] money coming into the state of Rhode Island, and we will take care of this issue,” Sosnowsk said.


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