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Who's Minding the Dam?
NOTE: The information reported in this article is supported by linked source documents. Readers are encouraged to review these documents for themselves. At the end of the article, TMP’s editorial comments are clearly denoted under the section: ‘The Mamaroneck Project Point of View’.
Recently The Patch published an article titled Village Declares Emergency After State Classifies Dam ‘Unsound’. Below, TMP reviews the Village Manager’s alarming local emergency declaration and some important questions - why hasn’t the dam been maintained, why was an emergency proclamation issued, and what does this mean for residents?
Origin and Use of the Dam
The original ‘Mamaroneck River Dam’ was constructed around 1900 to create a water supply (not to mitigate flooding) using rocks and timbers. The dam was replaced with a concrete structure in 1930 on land owned by the County. It was utilized as a water supply until the mid-1970’s. (See Introduction, page 1 of recommendation report by Stearns & Wheler.)
Who is Responsible for the Dam?
The Westchester Joint Waterworks (“WJWW”) is the owner of the dam and surrounding property - see Army Corp Inspection Report, p. 164.
In 1977, when the Village sought to install two runoff conduits, the Village signed an agreement with WJWW to maintain certain portions of the dam for flood control purposes detailed on pages 2 - 3.
The Board of Trustees’ December 12, 1977 resolution (p. 14) states:
…the Village of Mamaroneck will bear all costs resulting from the lowering of the Reservoir for the purpose of flood control, and it hereby assumes all responsibility for any lowering of the Reservoir and for the construction, maintenance and operation of two (2) conduits and the screening therefore and cleaning of any debris therefrom.
TMP has not located any resolution by the Board of Trustees agreeing to allocate Village taxpayer funds for the general upkeep of the entirety of the dam and ancillary structures beyond the flood control measures specified in the 1977 Resolution.
In his Weekly E-Newsletter 4/23 – 4/30, Mayor Tom Murphy is adamant that the Village accepted responsibility for the entirety of the dam in the late 70's - although he offers no explanation as to why the maintenance of the dam has not been done despite numerous earlier violations sent by the state, including in 2020.
Inspections and Notifications
The Village has received numerous reports over the years regarding the dam’s deteriorating condition.
Mamaroneck Reservoir Dam – Phase I Inspection Report – National Dam Safety. Although this July 1981 study by the New York District of the Army Corps of Engineers found the dam to be generally in good condition, the report notes on pages 12 - 13 that there appears to be an inadequacy in the spillway capacity that should be analyzed, and the owner of the dam should initiate necessary repairs within 18 months to be completed the following year. Apparently the spillway issue has never been addressed as is it is reported again in the 2022 letter just received from the NYSDEC.
In 2002 and 2004, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) inspected the dam and noted that the runoff conduits were partly clogged, the concrete showed cracking, and the filter house was deteriorating with woody vegetation. The NYSDEC also requested Maintenance and Emergency Action Plans be completed for the dam (See reference to these notices in the report on p. 5.)
A 2015 NYSDEC Notice of Violation letter assigned the dam rating of ‘unsound-fair’, and describes the dam as being “generally neglected” and shows a lack of maintenance and inspection. (See 12/30/15 Village Assistant Manager memo.) The table below lists the violations. The Village followed up by commissioning the engineering firm GED to conduct a study on the feasibility of decommissioning the dam, and submitting some plans to the NYSDEC, but it appears sufficient repairs were not made to the dam itself in light of the recent 2022 notice.
The recent NYSDEC April 13, 2022 third notice of violation on p. 3 refers to the 2018 NYSDEC assignment of a condition rating of “Unsound – Deficiency Recognized” sent in a December 7, 2018 letter by Syed Alam which cites the dam’s inadequate spillway capacity and structural deficiency revealed in the 1981 Phase 1 Report; the Notice of Violation sent in an April 14, 2015 letter by Donald Canestrari; and the Notice of Violation sent in a December 10, 2020 letter by John Smith.
It is clear from these reports that the Village has been kept informed of the dam’s gradual degradation since 1981.
In response to the latest letter from NYSDEC, Village Manager Jerry Barberio published a Proclamation of Local Emergency on April 20, 2022. Let’s take a look at what powers that gives to Mr. Barberio.
Under NYS Consolidated Law – Executive Law 24, an emergency declaration authorizes the chief executive to issue orders necessary to protect life and property or to bring an emergency under control – such as establishing a curfew, controlling pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and suspending local laws in order to cope with a disaster or recovery.
Since the NYSDEC notice does not report the dam as an imminent danger to life or property, it is unclear what disaster or emergency Mr. Barberio used to justify his emergency proclamation. Also, there is no language within Executive Law 24 that gives the chief executive any additional ability to hire experts or contract vendors that the Village Manager does not already possess. And more importantly, Mr. Barberio did not inform Village residents of any required actions to protect themselves or their property from any imminent failure of the dam if there is an actual emergency situation.
The Dam's Impact on Flooding
After Storm Ida, many residents are seeking information regarding regulation of all waterbodies in the Village, including the dam. Below are two studies conducted for the Village to determine the dam’s impact on potential flood levels. These studies found that the dam offers no meaningful reduction in flood depths.
The engineering firm Stearns & Wheler produced a Recommendation Report for the Westchester Joint Waterworks Reservoir Dam in January 2005. The report states: “Based on the information reviewed and the results of our hydraulic analysis, it can be concluded that the WJWW Reservoir Dam provides limited flood control for the downstream areas…” (see Section 5, p. 12 of the report).
In 2008, the Village hired consulting engineers Leonard Jackson Associates to conduct a study to see if lower flood elevations could be achieved through utilization of the dam. This study concluded that lowering the lake upstream of the dam to the lowest practical elevation would result in a nearly ineffective reduction of flood water depth on the Mamaroneck River “and need not be pursued further.” (See p. 1 of the LJA Report.)
Although these studies clarify that the dam is not a flood mitigation tool, it is still a vital concern that the dam embankment be structurally sound and that the conduit valves/screens are not clogged.
The Mamaroneck Project Point of View
TMP's Point of View
We are mindful of the traumatic effect Mr. Barberio’s dramatic emergency proclamation could have on residents who survived Storm Ida’s devastating flood. It is unfortunate that Mr. Barberio chose to make this public proclamation without further explanation to residents, especially as there is no imminent emergency.
In his newsletter, Mayor Murphy congratulates Mr. Barberio for making an announcement (although not for getting any actual work completed) that the Village now recognizes the dam must be maintained. An apology rather than a “high five” would seem to be in order.
Reading Mayor Murphy’s newsletter, the public announcement of the proclamation appears to be either grandstanding or an attempt to distract from the fact that the Village has failed to ensure substantive actions - either by the WJWW or the Village - required to maintain the dam have been taken.
Use of Taxpayer Funds
TMP is troubled that Mayor Murphy is so quick to assign Village taxpayers with the entire burden to pay for the dam’s upkeep. At a minimum, more research should be done to determine who needs to bear the brunt of the expenses other than the cost of specific repairs outlined in the 1977 agreement with the WJWW assigned to the Village. Village taxpayer dollars are need for flood mitigation measures such as clearing debris from the rivers, cleaning sewers, implementing a more effective resident warning system and conducting studies to revise our Zoning Code regarding residential development in the floodway. The WJWW, as the owner of the dam, should be living up to its responsibility to keep the dam in good condition since the 1977 agreement only requires very narrow and specific maintenance tasks be assigned to the Village.
NOTE: It is interesting that in addition to his position as mayor, Tom Murphy sits on the Board of the WJWW and receives a stipend for attending twice-monthly WJWW board meetings. TMP suggests that Mayor Murphy has an inherent conflict of interest and should recuse himself on matters relating to the dam and the Village.