“Save the Dam” resolution tabled by City Council amid swirl of money concerns
NORTHAMPTON— A resolution seeking City Council support to save a 19th-Century dam on Chesterfield Road using potential hydropower revenues was tabled last night after the project’s economic feasibility was questioned.
The measure, crafted by the Friends of the Upper Roberts Meadow Reservoir and Chesterfield Road Dam and sponsored by Councilors Paul Spector, Marianne Labarge, and Eugene Tacy, asks City Council support for the project should it prove “revenue neutral.” It was tabled to the council’s Sept. 2 meeting.
A controversial provision of the non-binding resolution would petition the Board of Public Works to ask the state’s Office of Dam Safety (ODS) to downgrade the dam’s hazard rating from “high” to “significant.” The ODS has listed the dam as a “high hazard” structure in “poor condition,” and is demanding it either be fixed or torn down.
But Department of Public Works Director Edward “Ned” Huntley said that applying to the Office of Dam Safety (ODS) for a hazard rating reduction would require engineering studies that might run as high as $100,000.
“There is no upside for the Office of Dam Safety in this,” added Board of Public Works Chairman Terry Culhane. He said a reduced hazard rating would only marginally benefit the Friends’ efforts: “All you would gain is a change in the inspection requirements, from once a year to once every five years.”
Friends member Joseph Misterka, who spoke to the council for 15 minutes last night, said a change in the dam’s designation from “high hazard” to “low hazard” would allow the group to buy time for fundraising. Misterka said that change is more appropriate because minimal damage would occur downstream should the dam fail, and asserted that the dam’s high hazard rating is unwarranted.
The Friends maintain that a micro-hydro facility on the dam could generate $20,000 a year in electricity sales, which would be used to maintain the dam in perpetuity. They also claim that the hydro scheme would generate a $400,000 surplus for the city over the next 50 years.
But late last year, Mayor Mary Clare Higgins told the group it must raise $625,000 by June 30, 2010 — the difference between dam breaching and repair, plus 50 years of maintenance — if it wants to forestall the dam’s demolition. GZA, the city’s consulting engineers for the project, estimated the cost of breaching the dam at around $1.2 million, and the cost of repair and long-term maintenance at close to $1.8 million.
Higgins has also told the group that they must pay for the cost of the hydropower generating equipment. Friends of the Dam have estimated this cost at $100,000, while City Engineer James Laurila has pegged the figure closer to $800,000.
While the city is relying upon engineering reports produced by GZA (a national firm with corporate offices in Norwood, Mass.), the Friends pull their figures from a “preliminary hydro assessment” prepared for it by the Essex Partnership, a small Connecticut-based engineering firm.
While both companies agree that hydropower potential exists at the dam, they differ widely in their financial projections. Essex maintains that electricity could be sold at 15 cents per kilowatt-hour under a “net metering” scheme, which requires having an energy consumer on-site. GZA insists that power from the rural dam could only be sold at a wholesale rate, estimated at 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. The bottom line, GZA concluded in a 2009 report, is that hydro development at Chesterfield Road dam is not economically feasible.
City Officials Speak Out
In his comments to the council last night, BPW Chairman Culhane rejected the Friends’ optimistic hydropower revenue projections and charged that the group was not only high-balling the rate at which electricity could be sold, but failing to include $800,000 in project costs.
Audio Clip: Terry Culhane: Who will pay?
Higgins kept her opinion to herself until asked to speak by At-large Councilor Jesse Adams. At that point, she launched an Excel spreadsheet app on her iPhone. “We’re looking at a significant loss of money here,” even when using the Friends’ contested figures of $20,000 yearly revenue, she said. “Over 50 years, yes, you could make money, but not over over the 20 years that you have to pay for the borrowing.”
(Friday, Higgins told Northampton Media that even if the Friends are taken at their word regarding revenue projections, the project would still be a money-loser: “Financially, their numbers don’t work.” But Dee Boyle-Clapp, a spokesperson for the Friends, said in an email message to NM this week that the group has “no intention of having the micro-hydro pay for the equipment or installation..that would be paid for with grants and from other sources…”)
Higgins referred councilors to a letter she recently sent to the Friends of the Dam where she enumerated cost and jurisdictional questions she felt the group did not adequately address in its hydropower proposal. (See related article to read letter.)
Higgins also said she has ordered the city’s energy and sustainability officer, Chris Mason, to contract with a third, impartial engineering firm to review all existing studies and documents related to the dam. The study, which will a recommend a course of action, is expected to cost about $5,000, to be paid for by the city’s water ratepayers.
Higgins said she hoped the study would be ready by the council’s Sept. 2 meeting, when the tabled resolution will resurface.
In a related development, DPW director Huntley said his staff has applied for a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant to breach the dam, and expects to hear from the agency “within weeks.” In 2008, the BPW voted to remove the dam, a vote that has not been rescinded.
For and Against
Public comment session before last night’s City Council meeting featured impassioned commentary on both sides of the issue.
For instance, Wayne Thibault, a neighbor to the dam, spoke of the ecological, aesthetic, and fire prevention aspects of the Upper Roberts Meadow reservoir, the 6-acre pond impounded by the dam. His wife, Fran Thibault, made a plea to preserve the reservoir as a “diverse wildlife habitat.”
“Removing the dam will forever destroy a place where turtles and fish spawn, where moose and deer come to drink, where migratory birds stop to rest and others come to play. Diverse habitats are as important to the city as a vibrant downtown,” Fran Thibault said.
Friends member Dave Herships read a letter from Northampton architect and historic preservationist Tris Metcalfe, who charged city officials with “groupthink” in their move toward breaching the structure.
Two staffers from the American Rivers Institute — Brian Graber and Amy Singler — spoke in favor of removing the dam. “This dam is global warming,” said Graber, who argued that breaching the dam would restore a cold-water fishery along the stream.
“The dam is climate change,” Graber told the council, saying he is all for clean, renewable sources of energy like hydropower. But, he added, “This dam is not the place for it.”
Singler, who did not identify herself as an American Rivers Institute staffer, spoke of her concerns as a resident water ratepayer concerned about costs and liabilities.
(Last year Graber told this reporter that American Rivers has been acting as a liaison between city public works staffers and the federal Fish and Wildlife Department to identify funding for dam removal. See Northampton’s Hidden Reservoir, The Valley Advocate, September 2009.)
Misterka, who gave an impassioned plea to save the dam, in part because of its historic significance, said he agreed with Graber that dams contribute to global warming. He said that if the city was proposing to build a new dam in the same spot, he would oppose it.
The dam is an asset of the city’s Water Department. The Upper Roberts Meadow Reservoir no longer serves as a municipal drinking water supply.