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Escalating Flood Risks Challenge the Resilience of New England’s Aging Dams in a Changing Climate

by Andrew Wright
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New England Dams

This week’s flooding in Massachusetts has accentuated the growing apprehensions regarding the long-term integrity of dams in New England, particularly in the context of increasingly severe and frequent storms induced by climate change.

New England is home to thousands of dams, many of which were constructed several decades, or even centuries, ago for purposes that range from powering textile factories to water storage and agricultural irrigation. Experts are increasingly concerned that these dams have exceeded their originally intended lifespans and may not be equipped to handle the storms that a changing climate is likely to bring.

Robert Kearns, a specialist in climate resilience affiliated with the Charles River Watershed Association, emphasized that these dams were engineered during a period when the climate and the intensity of storms were notably different. He cited Leominster, Massachusetts, where nearly 11 inches (27.9 centimeters) of rain fell within a matter of hours on a recent Monday night. At least two dams in the city’s network of 24 were on the brink of failure, leading authorities to suggest evacuations before the situation was brought under control.

Kearns went on to note, “The existing dams and culverts are not designed to cope with the increased water volumes we are witnessing, and this trend is likely to persist.”

According to federal records, there are close to 4,000 dams across New England. Of these, 176 are classified as high-hazard structures that are either in poor or unsatisfactory condition. Should these dams collapse, they would jeopardize lives, residential areas, critical infrastructure including water treatment facilities, and roads downstream.

An investigative report by The Big Big News in 2022 revealed a concerning increase in the number of high-hazard dams nationally, showing a substantial rise from numbers reported in an Associated Press review three years earlier. Some states, unfortunately, lack systematic tracking, and multiple federal agencies are reluctant to disclose specific dam conditions, making accurate data hard to come by.

A 2019 AP investigation found a range of issues with the dams, such as internal leaks, unrepaired erosion, burrows from animals, and excessive tree growth, which could all undermine the stability of earthen dams. In certain instances, inspectors pointed out that the spillways were inadequately sized to manage potential flooding from intensified rainstorms.

Dam safety has historically been a low priority for policymakers, often resulting in underfunded state-run safety programs. This lack of attention and funding not only delays necessary repairs but also means that local communities might remain unaware of upstream hazards. Moreover, critics argue that officials have been slow to acknowledge the growing risk posed by climate change.

Emily Norton, Executive Director of the Charles River Watershed Association, stated that there is an urgent need for a paradigm shift in how dams are assessed and managed, particularly given the escalating threats from climate change.

Christine Hatch, a hydrogeologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, called for a comprehensive statewide dam assessment to prioritize resource allocation effectively. “Climate change has rendered our historical safety standards obsolete. Financial constraints mean we must strategically decide which dams are critical and which pose risks,” she said.

Historically, New England has witnessed numerous dam failures, including more than 50 in New Hampshire and approximately 70 in Vermont. Rhode Island alone had five dam failures during a storm in 2010, which led to a thorough examination of all dam spillways in the state. A 2019 study revealed that a significant proportion of the state’s high-hazard dams could not withstand 100- or 500-year storms.

Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey has underscored the administration’s vigilance in monitoring dams and highlighted the need for federal funding for bolstering resilience and infrastructure.

The Barrett Park Pond Dam in Leominster, which dates back to the 1800s, experienced substantial damage during the recent floods. State officials indicated that its failure could have led to flooding in a downhill residential area. Last inspected in 2021, the dam was already noted to be in poor condition. Although a grant of $163,500 had been secured for repairs, the design phase was still underway when the flood occurred.

Arthur Elbthal, Leominster’s Director of Emergency Management, emphasized the ongoing efforts to maintain and repair infrastructure. “All infrastructure requires sustained attention and maintenance, be it dams, roads, or sewer lines. That focus will not change,” he said.


Contributions to this report were made by Steve LeBlanc of Big Big News in Boston.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about New England Dams

What is the main concern regarding New England’s dams in this article?

The main concern is that New England’s aging dams may not be equipped to handle the increasingly severe and frequent storms brought about by climate change.

How many dams are there in New England, and how many of them are categorized as high-hazard structures?

There are approximately 4,000 dams in New England, with 176 of them categorized as high-hazard structures, indicating they are in either poor or unsatisfactory condition.

What were some of the issues identified with these aging dams in a 2019 investigation?

The 2019 investigation found several issues with these dams, including internal leaks, unrepaired erosion, burrows from animals, and excessive tree growth, which can destabilize earthen dams. Additionally, some spillways were identified as too small to handle the increased water volume from intense rainstorms.

What is the recommended course of action to address the challenges posed by these aging dams?

Experts suggest conducting a comprehensive statewide dam assessment to determine which dams are essential and which ones pose significant risks. This assessment will help prioritize resource allocation effectively.

How has climate change contributed to the concerns about dam safety in New England?

Climate change has resulted in more extreme and intense storms, which these aging dams were not originally designed to withstand. This changing climate has increased the risk of dam failures and the potential for downstream damage.

What role does policy and funding play in addressing dam safety in New England?

Policy and funding have historically played a limited role in dam safety, resulting in underfunded state-run safety programs and delayed repairs. Advocates argue that there is an urgent need for a shift in mindset and increased funding to address the growing threats from climate change.

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