Advocates for a dam safety bill are calling for action from state lawmakers who represent 62 Bay State towns and cities that own 100 dams rated in unsafe or poor condition.

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Advocates for a dam safety bill are calling for action from state lawmakers who represent 62 Bay State towns and cities that own 100 dams rated in unsafe or poor condition.


A coalition of environmental, local government and engineering groups recently sent letters to every state representative with such a dam in his or her district, warning of “the potential to cause loss of life or significant property damage in the event of dam failure.”


The letter asked legislators to tell House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian Dempsey and Speaker Robert DeLeo that they support the dam safety bill. The Senate already passed a version of the legislation in July.


Steve Long, government relations director for the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts, said he has heard no opposition to the bill. The challenge is getting it noticed during a busy session occupied with casinos, redistricting and other hot-button issues.


“To me it’s just a question of getting it on the radar screen in the House and showing the leaders that their members are interested,” said Long, who cosigned the letter to state representatives. “I’m hopeful that we’ll get it done in this legislative session.”


Dams may not get the level of attention that casinos do, but there is ample evidence that failing to address those in poor condition could be a gamble for cities and towns.


A state auditor’s report in January found that among 627 dams owned by municipalities, 100 have substantial structural or flooding problems and could cause death or substantial property damage if they fail. That includes 32 dams in Worcester County, 14 in Middlesex, 13 in Norfolk, 11 in Bristol and 10 in Essex.


Many communities also lack state-required emergency plans for certain critical dams and the vast majority have inadequate maintenance plans, the audit said.


A 2006 report by the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight said broader worries have been raised as far back as 1979 about staffing and funding to ensure the safety of both private and public dams. The report found that the state lacks a complete and accurate inventory of dams for which it is responsible and their conditions.


The Senate report was spurred by heavy rains in 2005 that led to state of emergency declarations in 43 communities and forced evacuations in downtown Taunton when a private dam threatened to buckle.


Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, who headed the post audit committee at the time of its report, is now the sponsor of the dam safety bill advocates want to see adopted.


“Everything dealing with our dams certainly does grab the headlines when something goes wrong,” Pacheco said. “This is about preventing problems from occurring and investing in these systems now or removing them.”


Pacheco’s bill would set up a state fund to loan cities and towns money at low interest to inspect, repair or remove unsafe dams. Municipalities also would gain the authority to issue bonds to fix, rebuild or remove problem dams, depending on the situation.


Currently, towns and cities can borrow to build or repair a capital asset – a bridge or road, for example – but not to remove one. That leaves communities with little funding to work on dams, which often rank low on the list of immediate municipal needs.


“This is a critical piece,” said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “Many (towns) can’t afford to remove the structures even if ordered to do so.”


The bill also would require the state Office of Dam Safety to file regular reports on dams and which ones pose a threat to public safety or property, and require written emergency plans for high- and significant-risk dams. Keeping an up-to-date, central database of dam information is important, Pacheco said.


“You have situations, including in my district, where a private dam owner didn’t even know they were the owner of a dam,” he said.


The legislation also would give the dam office greater authority to fix or remove the structures when owners fail to comply with a repair order. The maximum fine for failing to comply with dam safety rules also would rise, from $500 per offense to $5,000.


The legislation has support from a variety of sources. In addition to the Nature Conservancy, the groups that signed the letter to state representatives include Mass Audubon, the Mass. Municipal Association, the American Council of Engineering Companies of Massachusetts and the Boston Society of Civil Engineers.


The Nature Conservancy sees benefits in public safety and improving fisheries and the health of rivers and brooks in removing some dams that no longer serve a purpose, Long said. In some cases, dams were built to power mills that are long gone.


“We’re not trying to return to pilgrim times,” Long said. “We’re trying to take an incremental approach and figure out which dams it makes sense to remove.”


Peter Richardson, president elect of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers, said his group sees caring for dams and removing ones that are obsolete as a critical part of the society’s broader call to invest in aging infrastructure.


“I can’t see why there wouldn’t be support,” he said of Pacheco’s bill.


Ways and Means Committee staff said the bill is still under review. Pacheco said he has talked with Dempsey, the Ways and Means chairman, and hopes to see movement soon.


Bolton Town Administrator Don Lowe said he is pleased the bill is advancing. He said his town has put a fair amount of money into inspections of the Fyfeshire Dam off Wattaquadock Hill Road.


While some residents oppose the idea, the town Conservation Commission has recommended removing the dam, Lowe said.


“We were in a situation where we’re looking at a $400,000, $500,000 bill and no way to pay for it,” he said.


Lowe said he hopes the final bill allows towns to pay off any borrowing over a long period of time and, if considered a low priority in accessing funds to remove a dam, lift some of the burden of engineering costs in the meantime.


“I’m very anxious to see the final details of how it’s going to work,” Lowe said.


(Reporter David Riley can be reached at 508-626-4424.)