SMITHFIELD, RI (AP) The Slack Reservoir Dam teetered on the brink of failure for years, threatening to spill hundreds of thousands of gallons of water into the valley below and destroy homes, schools and businesses.
Repairs were delayed for a decade as homeowners who own the dam struggled to raise the money to fix it. A work crew finally stopped the leak April 13 by driving in the last of dozens of steel beams that now form a retaining wall along the dam’s embankment.
“Nobody has to worry about this now,” said Marybeth Ouellette, who owns a florist shop yards from the dam. Her shop and several others in the building she owns could have been destroyed if the dam failed.
The Slack Reservoir Dam was one of five high-hazard dams that state officials declared unsafe. Dams are classified as high hazard if their failure could result in the loss of life or a significant amount of property.
Because much of the repairs are complete, the Department of Environmental Management is removing the Slack Reservoir Dam from its unsafe list.
But the Yorker Mill Pond Dam in Exeter, Limerock Dam in Lincoln, Stone Pond Dam in Cranston and Coventry Reservoir Dam remain on the list and require major repairs that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to state officials and DEM documents.
Repairs at the Slack Reservoir Dam are expected to cost $550,000, said Pam Laferriere, treasurer of the Slack’s Reservoir Association, which owns and maintains the dam. Association members have paid $250,000 of the repair costs and are taking a loan to cover more. The state and town of Johnston contributed a total of $170,000.
“If it’s going to save lives, that’s why it’s imperative that it’s done,” said Susan Humphreys, one of the homeowners responsible for the dam.
Humphreys, who inherited a house next to the dam when her uncle died last fall, recalled sitting on the dam’s brick retaining wall as a child and admiring the trees that lined it. Now the dam is mostly barren earth covered only by construction equipment.
The approximately 200-year-old dam started seeping in the 1990s. Water pulled material from the dam’s core, leaving a large soft spot in the middle of the embankment. State officials eventually declared the dam unsafe and ordered the reservoir’s water level lowered to help prevent disaster.
The 44-ft. steel beams inserted along the dam’s south side interlock to form a wall holding back the reservoir and preventing the water from eroding the dam’s earthen embankment.
State officials said they developed a sense of urgency about dam safety last fall after heavy rains nearly caused a dam in neighboring Taunton, MA, to fail.
Gov. Don Carcieri ordered the Department of Environmental Management to take steps to repair the state’s unsafe dams.
Recently, a Senate committee approved legislation allowing state authorities to bill property owners for emergency repairs to dams in danger of failing. It is headed for a vote before the full Senate.
The bill, supported by Carcieri, also would force cities and towns to develop emergency plans for each dam within their borders.
“I’m just happy to see this moving forward,” Carcieri said. “We’ve got others. We’ve got to take them one at a time.”