California’s Oroville Dam problems could be learning experience in Westfield

Tens of thousands of residents living near California's Oroville Dam are being allowed to return to their homes as emergency repairs continue.

WESTFIELD, Mass. (The Westfield News) – Though it may not seem it, the problems that Oroville, California area faced this month could impact Westfield, too.

Earlier this month, the Oroville Dam was in danger of unsafely releasing stormwater that had gathered in its spillway. The dam, which is the tallest in the US, had seen extensive damage from storms in February and threatened lives and property of those in the area. Over 180,000 people were evacuated from the area. And while people have been allowed back into the area, the concern now, according to the Westfield Flood Control Commission, turns to other dams across the country that were built around the same time and similar in nature to the Oroville Dam, including two in Westfield.

“In a bad light, this is terrible for the people of Oroville,” Al Giguere, Jr., Westfield Flood Control chairman, said. “But going forward this is a lesson to learn.”

Giguere said that the city’s two flood control dams–Arm Brook Dam and Powdermill Brook Dam–were built in the mid-1960s, and each were constructed similar to the Oroville Dam, which was constructed in 1968. The construction of these dams, according to Giguere, were considered sound but the Oroville incident shows that rehabilitation is needed.

“These structures are built to survive these things and it failed it,” Giguere said, adding that reports indicated that the Oroville Dam was seen as in “good condition.”

Turn to Westfield now, and he remarks that the dams here, which were built a few years prior to the Oroville Dam, are both in need of rehabilitation and upgrades. In fact, Giguere said that the decision that these dams need rehabilitation came from the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which is overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture.

“We have two dams that are past their life expectancy, and Powdermill is in especially bad shape,” he said.

In addition, this is a quote from the Arm Brook Reservoir yearly status report from the Westfield Flood Control Commission, provided by Giguere:

“In the Summer of 2016, a Semi-Bi-Annual Dam Safety Inspection and Evaluation was conducted upon the Arm Brook and Powdermill Brook Flood Control Projects, by [NRCS and USDA]. A number of known, and previously unknown, deficiencies were found at the Arm Brook Flood Control Project. This included leaf debris, illegally dumped into the emergency overflow causeway, fencing at the waterline of the reservoir, property encroachment, blocked drainage culverts, swampification of the emergency spillway, erosion, and siltation. We were also re-notified that the Arm Brook and Powdermill Brook Flood Control Projects have surpassed their 50-Year Design Life Expectancy, and require a “Complete Rehabilitation”.”

Similarly, the portion of the yearly status report on Powdermill Brook Dam came with requests for repair, as well:

“The condition of the Powdermill Brook Reservoir/Dam Flood Control Project is considered to be of Serious Concern by this Commission. It requires some potentially complicated repairs, and after serving the city for a little more than 50 years, it now requires a “Complete Rehabilitation to New Federal Standards”, per the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Office of Dam Safety.”

These concerns, according to Giguere, should not wait.

“This is something the city has to address. The federal government will be here at some point to tell us to fix it, the state government will be here at some point,” Giguere said.

And while the city has been fortunate in recent history, Giguere cautions people that this is something that should be looked at, especially now that an incident happened and nationwide focus will be on this and the history of Westfield. According to Giguere, up until the flood of 1955, the city had flooded roughly every five to 10 years. In addition, the entire downtown area of the city is a natural floodplain, he said.

To go even further, if a major flood did occur, Giguere said that it could damage portions of the Massachusetts Turnpike in the area, Routes 202 and 10 and also portions of the railroad system in the city.

However, in order to address this problem the city may need financial help from the federal government, which according to Giguere has been on hold at the federal level. If the city were to fix the problem on its own, Giguere said the conservative estimates from the NRCS put the city’s cost between $10 million to $20 million.

Regardless of how it is done though, Giguere believes it needs to be done.

“Floods happen. There will be another flood,” he said. “Whether the structures can withstand it is the question.”

Powdermill Brook Dam & Arm Brook Reservoir

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