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Dam Breach Threatens Massachusetts Campground

February 1, 2011 by   - () Leave a Comment

Entrance to King's Family Campground, Sutton, Mass.

With deep snow cover and the cold, it was quiet  Monday (Jan. 31) on Manchaug Pond and at nearby Stevens Pond, near the Douglas line in Sutton, Mass.

Many of the properties on the nearly 400-acre Manchaug Pond are summer homes that overlook the water, which even ice fishermen were staying away from on Monday.

It’s different during the summer when the 125 homes and campgrounds along the 6.2-mile shoreline are filled with families enjoying the Central Massachusetts summer, the Worcester Telegram reported.

That could change as early as next year because dam owner Hydro Projects North, a subsidiary of Interface Inc. of Atlanta, has started a process to breach the dam. When the dam was built in 1836 to provide power to textile industries along the Mumford River, the circumference of Manchaug Pond increased from 4.5 miles to 6.2 miles, said Wendy Porter, director of environmental management for Interface, and Timothy E. Riordan, vice president, Interface supply chain, in a conference call.

If the dam is breached, the water level in Manchaug Pond will lower over about 30 days to what it was when the dam was built, Porter said.

If that happens, Manchaug Pond Association President David W. Schmidt said many people along the lake will no longer have waterfront property.

For Tammy and Shane Hewett of Oxford, that would be bad news.

“We’ve been hearing about something like this for a couple of years,” Tammy Hewett said yesterday.

Manchaug Pond (at top of map) is a major amenity at King's Family Campground.

The Hewetts have owned a trailer at King’s Family Campground on Holt Road at Manchaug Pond for about 14 years. Tammy Hewett said many people love the pond, and lowering the water level would hurt.

“It’s such a peaceful place, it’s so beautiful here,” said Tammy Hewett, who was helping her husband shovel snow off the roof of their trailer.

Heidi Rosenquist, a receptionist at the campground, said the breaching of the dam “would be big deal. Manchaug Pond is very important to a lot of people.”

Hydro Projects North said in a recent public notice that economic conditions in the textile industry forced the closing several years ago of the Interface Fabric Group plant in East Douglas. Riordan said the company has no use for the dam now that the mill has closed.

The Interface mill and adjacent property on Gilboa Street in East Douglas, known as the site of the former Hayward-Schuster Woolen Mill, and the Manchaug Dam are the only two properties in New England still owned by the Atlanta-based company.

“As part of the process of winding up these businesses, in 2006 we began looking for local members of the community willing to take over ownership of the dams,” the public notice said.

The operation of the nearby Whitins Dam was assumed after a real estate taking by the Whitins Watershed District, Riordan said.

Interface has been offering the property, at no cost, to the towns of Sutton and Douglas, the Manchaug Pond Association, Manchaug Pond Foundation and Whitins Watershed District, the public notice said.

“To date, no one has accepted this offer,” the public notice said. “Consequently, we have begun the process required to breach the dam. This is our last attempt to find a responsible member of the community ready willing and able to take ownership of the dam at no charge.”

Sutton Town Administrator James Smith and Douglas Town Administrator Michael J. Guzinski said that while the offer to take over the dam for free sounds good at first, the cost of operating it and paying for insurance is far too costly for their communities.

Riordan, who said operation of the dam has had an annual average cost of between $13,000 and $31,000 during the past 10 years, said the company thinks people who have benefited from the dam and the larger water body it has created should be willing to take on the costs of running the facility. He said if the people living nearby don’t want to do that, the Atlanta-based company shouldn’t have to either.

Guzinski said the issue has been broached with Douglas selectmen.

“There are costs involved with the dam that the town cannot afford to take on at this point in time,” he said.

Smith echoed  Guzinski’s statements about the costs of operating the dam, and said breaching it would affect many people.

“We will fight aggressively the breaching of the dam,”  Smith said.

Schmidt said the Manchaug Pond Association is becoming the nonprofit Manchaug Pond Foundation, which would be capable of getting grants. But he acknowledged the costs associated with the dam are more than the association can afford.

The dam is listed by the state Office of Dam Safety as a large, high-hazard dam because if it broke, it could release enough water to threaten the lives of people downstream and flooding could occur for 13 miles, Department of Conservation and Recreation spokesman Wendy Fox said. The DCR oversees the state Office of Dam Safety.

Fox said the high-hazard designation has been given to the dam because a large number of people could be affected by a dam break, and not because of its condition. She said the dam is considered to be in fair condition, which means it needs minor work but doesn’t have any serious structural issues.

“We think it’s in pretty good shape,” Schmidt said.

Riordan said the responsible thing to do, if no entity steps up to operate the dam, is to breach it, rather than abandon it and risk its collapse in the future.

Porter said an Environmental Notification Form has been filed with the state officials through the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Act, and environmental studies on the area surrounding the dam will begin in the spring. She said Interface would have to present a plan to replicate, as closely as possible, the natural habitat of the land surrounding the pond as it was in 1836 before the dam was built.

Porter said any breaching most likely won’t happen until the 2012 construction season “at the earliest.”

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