Friday, March 5, 2010

Failure of the Forge Pond Dam in Freetown is a Wake Up Call for Dam Owners

Last week, the Forge Pond dam on the Assonet River in Freetown came close to collapsing. The 300 year old dam is one of the most unsafe dams in Massachusetts and has been a target for removal for at least a decade. This dam was a chronic issue for the Office of Dam Safety, and the owner ignored fines and orders to fix or remove the dam. The owner died last year, leaving a derelict dam in the hands of state and local officials. While Dam Safety had removed the gates and lowered the pond, someone continued to plug up the dam and the pond reimpounded, spilling over and eroding the structure.

Most of the dam will now be removed by the state, creating a river channel that will allow fish passage. The dam directly downstream had the same owner and is also in extremely poor condition. We hope to work with the town to have that dam removed as well. Options for the first dam on the river also need to be explored, since the Assonet River is habitat for rainbow smelt - a protected species that is in decline. These fish spawn at the head of the tide on gravel stream bottoms. Dam removal will also open up this river for other migratory fish such as river herring and American eel.

Dams across the state are living on borrowed time, and many of our communities are at risk. These dams were built decades to centuries ago and many of them, perhaps most, no longer serve the function that they were built to provide. Closing our eyes to the problem doesn't make it disappear. The most cost-effective, permanent way for communities to solve the problems of unsafe dams is to remove them.

This near disaster comes less than five years after the failure of the Whittenton Pond dam in Taunton forced the evacuation of the downtown during a 2005 storm. That wake up call led to a state-wide review of dams in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island and much more aggressive enforcement by both dam safety programs. The states are doing their part of the job. This latest incident at Forge Pond highlights the need for dam owners to take personal responsibility and recognize their own liability.

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