State Calls for Repair of Wright Reservoir

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, September 16, 2017

Hartford — State officials have stepped up pressure on the town to come up with a long-term fix to the Wright Reservoir on Hurricane Hill, a popular fishing spot the town drained in 2015 to partially address safety concerns about a potentially catastrophic breach of the earthen dam.

Located in the Hurricane Wildlife Refuge, the dam once held back more than 3 million gallons of water, which the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s Dam Safety Program said was in danger of washing across Wright Reservoir Road and, possibly, Interstate 89.

In 2010, a permanent repair of the dam was estimated at $400,000; the town began socking away money toward that project, but the reserve fund was redirected to address an unexpected spike in health insurance premiums. In 2015, faced with no money and a new repair estimate of $600,000, the town decided to instead spend less than $10,000 to drain the reservoir and thereby alleviate the immediate public safety concerns.

Two years ago, the town initiated a month-long drawdown of the dam, and ever since, the water that once drained from a series of small streams into the pond has instead been directed to lower ground by means of a man-made channel.

At the time of the drawdown, state officials warned the town that it had two years to fashion a more long-term solution if it didn’t want to lose its permit for the dam. If the permit expires, the town would face a much more rigorous review if it decided to apply for a new permit for the purpose of refilling the reservoir.

That two years is now up, and town officials from the public works and parks and recreation de partments have had recent meetings with Ben Green, chief of the state Dam Safety Program, to review their options.

“We would like to see this happen sooner than later,” Green said during a phone interview on Friday. “We’ve made it clear it’s not acceptable to go on into eternity.”

Green said the dam still poses a danger because the pipe that takes the water flow downstream is only 10 inches wide, not nearly enough to handle the water during heavy rain.

In addition, he said, “there’s an opportunity for the pipe to get plugged. The biggest concern I have is debris getting clogged halfway down the pipe, which is quite a bit more challenging to remove.”

In fact, keeping the pipe clear has already become an issue. In an August report, then-Acting Town Manager Scott Clooney wrote that engineers were working to prevent silt from clogging the pipe.

During a report to the Selectboard on Tuesday, Cooney said that there also are environmental concerns related to the formation of a new wetland ecosystem that is establishing where the water is now draining.

It’s unclear whether the town will opt to repair the dam, which would likely cost in excess of the $600,000 estimate from 2015, or whether it will remove the dam, Selectboard Chairman Dick Grassi said on Friday.

“It’s like anything,” he said. “It’s always about money, money, money and priorities. We have a massive to-do list that we’re working through.”

Grassi said he was aware of an active group of Hartford residents who have been passionate about their desire to see the fishing and picnicking spot restored.

In 2009, the Selectboard decommissioned the Upper and Lower Hurricane dams by cutting holes in them to relieve the water pressure to address similar safety concerns. At the time, members said they would work to save the Wright Reservoir, a compromise position to accommodate those who wanted to see all three earthen dams saved at a cost estimated at $1.4 million in 2007.

“It is something that is a priority for a number of people in town,” Grassi said. “It is a treasure to a lot of people in this community. We understand that.”

However, Grassi also pointed to a 2016 town-wide survey that indicated only tepid support among the general public to spend significant amounts of tax money on the spot. The issue was one of several covered in the survey, which was conducted to help town officials identify the public’s priorities.

“All options are open for discussion,” Grassi said. “The discussion hasn’t taken place yet.”

He said that, in the coming weeks and months, he expected town staff would present different alternatives, and that public input would be sought before the Selectboard makes a decision. The cost of tearing down the dam is unknown.

On Tuesday, Selectboard Vice Chairman Dennis Brown asked town staff whether there might be grants available for the project, but Green on Friday said he’s only aware of grants to support decommissioning dams, not repairing them.

Hartford’s dam woes are not unfamiliar, Green said.

“Unfortunately it’s very common,” Green said. “There’s little help out there for municipalities.”

He said the state isn’t seeking an immediate fix, but that it does expect the town to commit to a plan, even if that plan takes time to fund and put into action.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.