COOPERSTOWN — Hundreds of “high hazard” dams across upstate New York lack emergency action plans and there could be a significant loss of life and destruction of property if they fail, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, warned Thursday.
“We’ve learned the hard way that when it comes to safety we can’t cut corners,” Schumer told reporters in a conference call.
He pointed out that more than 30 New York dams were damaged during Hurricane Irene in 2011. Four of the dam failures then were in Greene County, he noted.
Citing statistics from the National Inventory of Dams, Schumer said New York has a total of 1,141 dams that are considered high or significant hazards if they failed. And of those, he added, nearly 75 lack emergency action plans that are intended to map out what steps should be taken to protect life and property should they breach.
According to data provided by Schumer’s staff, Otsego County has three dams in the “high” hazard category, while Delaware and Schoharie each has seven such dams. Chenango County has eight dams classified as high hazard.
One of the most significant and well-known dams in the region is the Gilboa Dam in Schoharie County. Owned by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the Gilboa Dam’s reservoir crested at 1131.4 feet during Hurricane Irene, 1.4 feet over its 1,300 foot spillway, according to the state DEC.
The Gilboa Dam does have an emergency action plan, which was activated during Hurricane Irene, according to the DEC.
“As our weather patterns become more extreme and our nation’s dams and other infrastructure continue to age, it’s the federal government’s job to invest in upgrades to our dams to make these structures safer and more reliable,” Schumer said.
Some of the dams in question are owned by municipalities or the state, he said, while others are privately owned.
He said he is calling on his fellow senators to pass the Water Resources Development Act of 2013. The legislation is scheduled to be voted on in two weeks. Schumer said the legislation will make funding available to New York and other states for dam inspections and maintenance by reauthorizing the expired National Dam Safety Program.
The average dam in New York is 60 years old, and the average age of dams in the high-hazard category is 84 years old.
“Because of their age and the potential for disaster, it is crucial that these high and significant hazard dams receive proper monitoring and maintenance from regulatory authorities,” Schumer said.
Michael Zagata of Davenport, the former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said Schumer’s concerns regarding dam safety are valid. He noted that there was a fatality after a little-known dam in the Margaretville area gave way in 1996.
Zagata said the DEC, which is responsible for dam safety in New York, is hard-pressed to fulfill that mission after a series of budget cuts have led to staffing reductions totaling some 1,100 positions.
“These dams are inconspicuous — until there is a crisis,” Zagata told The Daily Star. He noted that Gov. Andrew Cuomo reduced the DEC budget by some $580 million this year,. The cuts, Zagata said, have been so deep that it will make it difficult for the agency to review and process applications for environmental permits that, if awarded, could lead to business expansion in the state.
“I’m not a proponent of big government,” Zagata said. “But we need to make sure DEC has the resources it needs to do the job or it will come back to bite us.”
Schumer stressed the importance of dams having emergency action plans. The plan, he said, is an official document establishing procedures to minimize loss of life and property damage in the event of a dam failure. The plans usually contain a description of preventive maintenance for that structure, maps that indicate areas susceptible to flooding, and a list of potential emergency conditions — like extreme weather — that could trigger a dam failure.
The plans, he added, also detail the actions to be taken if a dam failure does occur, by providing notification procedures for first responders and the general public along with the protocol to mitigate damage to property.
If the National Dam Safety Program is reauthorized, Schumer said, it will provide the state with federal grants to hire engineering staff or engineering consultants to complete inspections and develop the emergency action plans.
The measure would provide a total of $9.2 million per year split among the states, based on the relative number of dams per state, to make improvements in programs identified in the National Dam Safety Program Act
It will also include $1 million per year for a nationwide public awareness and outreach program; $1.45 million per year in research funds to identify more effective techniques to assess, construct, and monitor dams; $750,000 per year in training assistance to state engineers; and $500,000 per year for the National Inventory of Dams.