Fixing the dam problem in Norwich
It’s not uncommon for the Yantic River to flood, nor is it unusual for such floods to cause damage and business closures. It’s becoming increasingly likely, however, that more frequent extreme storms will make Yantic River flooding of the Norwichtown, Bean Hill, Yantic and Uncas Leap neighborhoods even more common.
It’s bad enough that repeated flooding threatens homes, businesses and the Bean Hill power substation. What makes the situation even more precarious, is that an upriver dam built some 180 years ago is now in poor condition and its failure could be catastrophic for downriver residents and businesses.
On Jan. 10, a storm that produced torrential rains caused the Yantic River to rise quickly to 14.23 feet, just 7 inches below its record flood level. In addition, some 500 Norwich residents and a dozen Bozrah businesses were ordered to evacuate when an official discovered water leaking through the left abutment of the Fitchville Pond Dam in Bozrah.
While heavy rain and rapidly melting snow would have caused the Jan. 10 Norwich flooding regardless of the condition of the dam, the threat from the dam turned a serious and scary situation into a nightmare for residents and businesses in the river’s path.
The dam, built in the 1840s and upgraded in the 1880s, is privately owned by Seymour Adelman, the owner of Seymour’s Sand and Stone. An official who helps oversee dam safety for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection told Day reporter Claire Bessette that the dam is listed as a “high hazard potential” by the state and the owner has a history of not complying with state regulations to inspect the dam every two years or to file an action plan for possible emergencies. In fact, the dam’s condition has earned it the worst of the state’s five categories measuring the potential for dam failure and no action plan is currently on file for the dam.
A true catastrophe was averted this time. A cofferdam was built at the dam to relieve water pressure and allow for a closer inspection of the dam. Unless permanent corrective measures are put in place quickly, however, such luck could run out in future severe storms.
It’s appropriate that Norwich city officials are taking all these matters quite seriously. A week after the flooding and evacuations, Norwich city leaders and emergency response staff met with the City Council to review the Jan. 10 situation and begin planning for an improved response to future storms. One conclusion was that an emergency phone message system used for the first time ever to order evacuations from the flood, needs improvement. The city’s fire chief said it took more than a half hour to craft the message to send out to residents.
While a second warning message sent a few days later when another storm threatened, was issued to residents within just a few minutes — a great improvement, indeed — we urge emergency officials to also have backup plans for communicating such messages to residents and business owners. Redundancy in this case, would not be a bad thing. Better for residents to receive several messages in different manners than to receive none at all.
Most urgent, however, is the need to improve the Fitchville Pond dam. State officials must enforce regulations and ensure the dam’s owner files an emergency plan and also has the dam regularly inspected. If the dam is in poor condition — and it appears it is according to the state’s rating system — the most critical need is to repair it. There might be no better use for federal or state funding and local officials might impress upon state and federal officials the need for this.
Connecticut experienced two severe rain storms in two weeks earlier this month. Such storm frequency is no longer an anomaly and ensuring that aging infrastructure can withstand these fiercer weather patterns is no longer a luxury.
The Day editorial board meets with political, business and community leaders to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larraneta, Owen Poole, copy editor, and Lisa McGinley, retired deputy managing editor. The board operates independently from The Day newsroom.
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