Failing N.H. Dams Could Bring Flood Of Costs, With No Help In Sight
New Hampshire’s deteriorating roads and bridges - and how to invest in them - are major questions for lawmakers this year. But whatever the funding, one critical piece of the state’s infrastructure – private dams – likely won’t see a penny.
New Hampshire’s dams received a C- in this year’s infrastructure report card. That’s par for the course - most of the state’s infrastructure got the same rating, or worse. But most of the state’s infrastructure is taken care of by the state. Most dams are on their own. Like the old dam at Moeckel Pond in Windham.
"When we get over to the spillway here," Young gestures to the cement structure spanning a small brook, "you’ll be able to actually see the rocks through the concrete, where it’s thin and chipped. So, you’re standing on rocks and dirt."
Norm Young is standing on a run-down dam not far from his house. Up until six years ago, this dam supported the centuries-old Moeckel Pond. But years of neglect and absent owners forced the removal of a section of the dam – and with it, the removal of the pond. Diana Fallon, who also lives on Moeckel Pond, remembers when the 40 acres were drained.
"We didn’t own the pond at that point in time. One of the people who inherited," Fallon explains, "he was tasked with coming out here and opening up the spillway and then taking out the stop logs that were at the bottom to finish draining the pond."
People who lived around the pond were upset - their backyard was drained without a public hearing. But the pond and dam were private, and had fallen into total disrepair after the owner passed away.
"The people who inherited it said, if you form a non-profit, we’ll give you the property," Fallon says, "and you use it to restore the pond and the dam. And, so, that’s been our charge for the last six years."
They formed a group – the Friends of Moeckel Pond – to raise the money for a new dam – and that cost has risen to over half a million dollars in the past six years.
Most of the state’s more than 2,500 dams are private, so the Moeckel predicament is not uncommon. Jim Gallagher, the chief engineer with the New Hampshire dam bureau, says that it can be difficult - and really expensive - for private owners to take care of their dams. The cost of neglecting a dam, though, can be a lot worse. Like when the private Meadow Pond Dam failed in the lakes region 20 years ago.
"When it failed, it caused 8 million dollars of damage downstream," Gallagher explains, "essentially destroying route 40 and homes downstream of it, and there was a loss of life."
Gallagher says that the state has been getting the funding they need to cover inventory repairs and overhauls year-by-year. But private owners don’t have the same help. A state loan fund doesn’t have enough money in it to dole out loans, and private grants are pretty much only available for dam removal, not upkeep. Of course, that also means removing whatever that dam was holding back. And that’s not always what residents want.
Post from RICOH THETA. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
Click and drag the image to explore the old dam at Moeckel Pond
"The grant attitude is, oh, all dams should be taken out," says Norm Young, standing on what used to be the bank of the pond, looking out over scrubby undergrowth, "Well, that’s not true. It’s a case-by-case situation. Some dams, it’s probably for safety and for wildlife, it’s a good thing. Other dams, it’s a terrible loss."
For Norm Young and the Friends of Moeckel Pond, building a new dam means restoring an ecosystem and creating a public space. The new dam, when finished, will be named, the Marston-Finn Conservation Dam, after a couple who have donated significant funds to the project.
After the pond was drained in 2011, residents found empty turtle shells scattered across the dry bed, dragonflies and heron disappeared, mosquitoes, mice and ticks moved in in droves.
Standing on the old dam, looking out over the place where the pond was, Norm Young holds his photo album against the landscape.
"I miss that…" Norm gestures to a photo of of Moeckel Pond on a sunny day, "It’s the birds, the ducks – I have never, in my life, seen so many ducks... eh – eh – it’s just… it’s natural, it’s beautiful, it’s not city."
Restoring Moeckel Pond won’t be a one-time cost. The new dam will come with years – probably centuries – of expensive, unsubsidized maintenance. So the neighborhood agreed to a tax one another, to set up a sustainable fund.
That’s a bunch of Granite Staters... asking for new taxes… all to bring back a dam.