AP analysis: Dams across New York pose potential threat

May 5, 2022 Michael Hill, Associated Press
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Dozens of dams in poor condition across New York state are upstream from homes, highways or businesses, posing potential threats to people if they fail.

An Associated Press analysis found 90 “high-hazard” dams in New York that also were rated in poor condition — a marked increase from several years ago largely driven by the state’s push to rate more dams.

A high-hazard designation does not mean a dam is in danger of failing, but that the loss of human life is likely if it does. Most of those dams are operated by state or local governments, including 11 dams within the state parks system. Twenty-five are privately owned.

Deficiencies noted in the dams include cracks, seepage and inadequate spillway capacity, according to inspection reports obtained by the AP. In Harriman State Park, an inspection report last year noted “erosion and scouring” at the end of a concrete spillway outlet chute that could potentially compromise the First Reservoir Dam.

While many of these dams are expected to perform adequately under normal conditions, the cost of failure could be catastrophic.

In Ithaca, failure of the 60 Foot Dam during severe rains could add to existing flooding, leaving sections of the Finger Lakes city inundated with a peak of 2 to 15 feet (0.6 to 4.6 meters) of water. City officials said such a dam failure was unlikely, according to an emergency action plan.

Ithaca’s Superintendent of Public Works Mike Thorne said the dam was built to century-old stability standards and now must meet stricter requirements. The city is working to get a grant to help fund needed work, he said.

“We have been working with various consultants on the 60 Foot Dam and we do have rough plans in place for what needs to happen,” Thorne said. “The problem is it’s expensive.”

State parks officials said they’re addressing deficiencies in five priority dams. At Harriman State Park, construction on First Reservoir Dam is to begin next year with work on Lake Sebago Dam to start in 2024, according to park officials.

The number of high-hazard dams in poor condition statewide is almost double the number from AP’s prior analysis three years ago. But the increase was driven primarily by previously unrated dams receiving a condition rating in recent years. State Department of Environmental Conservation officials said they have focused on rating more of the dams they regulate, increasing the portion with ratings to 87%, up from 49% in 2018.

“Our staff immediately addresses any urgent conditions that are identified, remain on call every day of the year to respond to any potential concerns resulting from storms or other damaging impacts, and conduct diligent inspections of private, public, and state-regulated dams to help prevent issues before they occur,” the DEC said a prepared statement.

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