You rarely see them or think about them, but there’s something you should know about the 4,500 dams across Connecticut: Dozens need repairs and maintenance, and it appears nobody’s checking them.
The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters have learned many dams classified as being a “high and significant hazard” have not had formal inspections in decades.
You can count the number of catastrophic dam failures in Connecticut in modern times on one hand, but when you see the aftermath, you understand how one failure is one too many.
One scary scene: a brand new dam failure in neighboring New York state just a few years ago. A state spokesman said then, “I think it’s going to be a difficult time recovering from this.”
The last huge one here was in Essex in 1982. Doug Senn remembers it like it was yesterday.
“Scariest moment of my life!” he said, referring to 150-year-old dams that used to be owned by a manufacturer for hydropower. They gave way in the village of Ivoryton after a pelting 24-hour rainfall.
Senn was 17 at the time, and had just joined the local volunteer fire department.
“Hundred-foot tall trees, the roots are in the air. There's houses in the air. There are cars in the air," he said. "And you're just hoping you'll get high enough to get out of the way.”
Efforts are being made to rebuild and refortify many dams in Connecticut, the largest classified as either "high" or "significant hazard" dams.
Lake Beseck in Middlefield has a brand new, rebuilt "significant hazard" dam. Had the old one broken down, it would have unleashed as much as 410 million gallons of water on people downstream who have seen serious flooding before, like Eric Ness.
“Something got clogged near the dam, and overflowed," Ness recalled. "Came into the road and washed the entire road out.”
That dam had not had a formal state inspection in at least a decade prior to being rebuilt. But the state, which owns the dam, says it has been continuously monitored. Dams owned by the state appear to get more attention than their counterparts.
Take, for example, a "high hazard" dam in Harwinton owned by the Bristol Water Department. It has not had a formal inspection since 1994, the year it was rebuilt, according to Bristol Water Supt. Robert Longo.
“This feeds into the Poland Brook. Which then goes down and feeds into another reservoir further down which then ends up in downtown Plymouth. So you know, anything catastrophic here, as a result, could end up down there,” Longo said.
That said, Longo believes the city dams’ lack of recent formal inspections are not cause for concern.
“They're newer. They've been rebuilt since the 90s," he said. "So it may be decades, but they're not 50, 60 years old.”
Bristol’s dam inspections and others have lagged because the state used to conduct them but, with limited resources, changed the policy in an effort to speed things up.
State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection dams supervisor Art Christian said dam owners are now required to hire and foot the bill for inspections.
"Because of the time lag and because we had so many to inspect, we weren't getting to a lot of them, and many dams hadn't been inspected in quite a while,” he said.
Longo added that lining up engineers to inspect city dams takes time, as does getting city leaders to pay for them.
“We're hoping to have proposals back in late winter and get out here in the spring,” he said.
The most detailed, multi-layered inspections can cost up to $15,000 per dam. With Bristol sweating to pay for a few of them, imagine the concern it raises with the homeowners’ association that took over a set of dams in Ledyard 40 years ago. The dams sit on Long and Bush ponds, a pair of water bodies with a state boat launch.
"It was a more loose arrangement," explained Betsy Graham, with the Lantern Hill Valley Association.
Graham said the plan was to fix up and maintain the "significant hazard" dams that a mothballed manufacturer had let fall into disrepair.
Fast forward to 2014 and some of the two dozen homeowners in the volunteer organization have retired, not ready to spend thousands needed for state required studies, which they believe could also put them on the hook for tens of thousands more in repair or replacement work.
"What they're asking from us and other owners of dams is just a response to recognition that we have to maintain the upkeep of these dams to keep everybody safe," Graham said. "And somebody has to bear that burden."
According to the association, dam owners believe the state needs to better support, or even take over, their critical pieces of infrastructure to keep them maintained.
"It's not a project that happens with a small amount of money," Graham said.
The bottom line though, is those inspections need to be done one way or another, because further neglect could bring the same result that had Doug Senn fearing for his life.
“It’s quick, it's terrifying, and it's hard to win against a flood,” Senn said.
Of the 350 "high" and "significant hazard" dam owners in Connecticut required to inspect their own dams, fewer than a quarter have done so.