AMSTERDAM, N.Y. (AP) — The Harrower Pond Dam, cracked and crumbling, with saplings sprouting from its walls, has been repeatedly cited by state and federal inspectors for safety violations over the past four decades. But repairs are unlikely anytime soon because nobody accepts ownership of the 150-year-old dam at a former mill site.
"If that dam broke, it would be catastrophic to some areas of the city," said Tom DiMezza, town supervisor in Amsterdam, 30 miles northwest of Albany. "Nobody knows if it's going to collapse. If there were state grants to fix it, we'd go after it, but unfortunately there's not."
The 25-foot-high earthen dam was part of a more than two-year investigation by The Associated Press that identified at least 1,680 dams nationwide considered in poor or unsatisfactory condition and rated as high hazard because people would likely be killed if they failed. Of 48 such dams in New York, 16 are privately owned and the rest are under state, federal, local government or public utility ownership.
Emergency plans obtained by the AP indicate that catastrophic dam failures could inundate downstream homes, schools, businesses and highways. Deficiencies cited in inspection reports include leaks, cracks, animal burrows and vegetation growth that can destabilize earthen dams, and spillways too small to handle the volume of water from massive rainstorms resulting from a changing climate.
Some of the problems go back years or even decades but have not been repaired because of lack of government funding or the inability or refusal of private owners to do expensive renovations.
Eight dams in New York state parks were cited for structural deficiencies such as inadequate stability or spillway capacity. They include the Lake Sebago dam in Harriman State Park, a 25-foot-high dam that forms a 310-acre lake surrounded by camping cabins, hiking trails and picnic areas. State environmental inspectors have noted problems and requested rehabilitation since 2008.
"The inadequate spillway capacity and dam stability are serious dam safety issues which must be resolved," an inspector wrote in 2014 and 2018.
A dam failure at Lake Sebago would inundate homes, businesses, roads and railroad tracks in seven communities in New York and New Jersey, according to the emergency action plan. The plan notes that in addition to state inspections every two years, the 94-year-old dam is inspected by park officials several times a year and patrolled by state park police daily, providing early warning if problems develop.
No repair projects are scheduled at Lake Sebago, state parks spokesman Dan Keefe said, though renovations and improvements are being made at several other dams in state parks.
Deficiencies also are being addressed at several other high hazard dams among the 48 identified as being in poor or unsatisfactory condition in New York.
The city of Oneida in central New York has authorized an $8 million bond to renovate the Glenmore Dam, which creates its drinking water reservoir. Reconstruction work has been completed on the village of Cobleskill's reservoir dams, and rehabilitation work is in the design, permitting or early construction stage at six other dams, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
A dam's owner is required to pay for engineering studies and maintenance, but ownership disputes muddy the water for several of the high hazard dams in poor or unsatisfactory condition.
Honk Falls Dam, a 130-year-old concrete structure in the Catskill Mountains, was declared in need of repair more than three decades ago. The state tried to make two adjacent landowners pay for its maintenance or removal, but the families won a court fight that concluded New York City owns the dam as part of its upstate water supply. Now the city is launching an $8 million, three-year project to bring the dam into compliance.
The Harrower Pond dam is on a former textile mill site that was transferred to the town of Amsterdam by a New Jersey man who bought it at a foreclosure auction, DiMezza said. The town demolished the mill and removed drums of waste to make way for a park but never took ownership of the dam, he said. State inspectors have sent four notices of violations to the New Jersey man since 2008 and received no response.
The Associated Press made several calls to a phone number listed for the man, but there was no answer.
The state lowered the water behind the dam to reduce the potential for flooding in 1980 after a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inspection found the condition to be unsafe due to deterioration, instability and erosion.
But the dam, which impounds a 267-acre pond along Chuctanunda Creek, is still considered to be in unsatisfactory condition because of structural problems such as seepage, cracks and fallen stones. A state inspector wrote in a March 2018 notice that the "deficiencies represent significant safety concerns."
The state has the authority to secure an administrative or court order allowing it to renovate the dam and seek cost recovery from the owner.
New York is one of 26 states slated to get part of a new $10 million grant program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for high hazard dams that pose an unacceptable risk to the public. The state, which is getting $1.25 million from FEMA, will take applications from as many as 150 eligible dams to conduct planning and engineering work for future repairs.
The Department of Environmental Conservation said the state budget includes an additional $10 million for repair and maintenance of state-owned dams.
That's just a drop in the bucket of what's needed. A report last year from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's office said it would cost an estimated $360 million to repair municipally owned dams that are considered a high or intermediate hazard to public safety.