TOWNSHEND—Fifty-four years ago, a giant moved into West Townshend.
There’s no doubt that the hulking Townshend Dam has provided benefits over that half century, from large-scale flood protection — a 2011 estimate said the structure had prevented $137.1 million in flood damage — to a popular outdoor recreational area.
But these days, Townshend officials aren’t sure the dam is living up to its billing.
A small payment in lieu of taxes for the dam property hasn’t changed in decades, and Townshend Lake’s recreational area is choked with silt, limiting its utility.
Local officials are trying to take action on both fronts through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dam; the Connecticut River Valley Flood Control Commission, which is supposed to promote cooperation among the watershed’s four states; and Vermont state officials.
Selectboard Chairwoman Kathy Hege isn’t convinced that anyone is looking out for towns that play host to big flood-control dams.
“If the the state is not going to take action on behalf of the towns, then the towns are going to have to take action from their own perspective,” Hege said.
‘We have a mud pit’
The silting problem is the simpler of the two issues raised by Townshend.
The Army Corps website describes the Townshend Lake swimming area as “shallow enough for children yet deep enough for those wanting to swim laps,” but things haven’t been that ideal for a while.
“They’re telling us that we have a recreation facility, which we do not have,” Hege said. “We have a mud pit.”
The issue came to a head after flooding from Tropical Storm Irene ravaged the region in August 2011. A side effect of the storm was a significant deposit of silt at Townshend Lake.
Tim Dugan, a spokesman for the Corps’ New England District, noted that the agency funded a $28,000 excavation/dredging contract in August 2013 to remove about 4,500 cubic yards of sediment from Townshend Lake.
However, “this was only a small fraction of what is actually in the reservoir area,” Dugan noted by email. And the problem has not gone away.
Though Irene struck the area more than four years ago, the Corps is feeling the continued effects of the storm because stream channels remain unstable, said state Rep. David Deen, a Westminster Democrat who works as river steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council.
“Irene set off such erosive forces, and the rivers are still recovering,” Deen said.
As a result, both the Townshend swimming area and the reservoir as a whole continue to be affected by unusual sedimentation.
“They were able to open the swim area for the season in 2013,” Dugan said. “In 2014, it was still in decent shape, but then siltation continued to come down the system. In 2015, there was a reduced depth in the swimming area, but the swimming area was still open to the public.”
Discouraging to visitors
Open to the public is not enough for Townshend officials or for state Rep. Emily Long, a Newfane Democrat who attended an Oct. 19 Townshend Selectboard meeting to hear the board’s concerns.
“I’ve had several people speak to me well before I heard from the Selectboard about this,” Long said. “Clearly, it is an issue.”
Officials say they’ve heard stories of visitors declaring that they would not return to Townshend State Park due to diminished swimming, boating, and fishing opportunities at the lake. That’s bad news for the local economy.
“This has got to impact every business in the town of Townshend and maybe up and down the West River Valley,” Long said.
Long told the board she thinks “Townshend has a pretty strong argument with the silt issues.” But there’s no indication that another excavation project is in the works.
“The Corps staff is looking at the issue, but right now they don’t have the resources or funding to address the problem,” Dugan said.
Larry Rosenberg, a regional Corps spokesman, added that recreation — while important — is not the agency’s core mission.
“The recreational use of these lands is a secondary benefit of the purpose of the project, which is flood-risk management,” Rosenberg said.
Value of the dam in dispute
That leads to Townshend’s second, more-complicated concern. Flood-risk management was the reason for formation, in 1953, of the Connecticut River Valley Flood Control Commission.
Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont joined the commission at a time when the federal government was developing extensive plans to alleviate flood risks on the Connecticut River and its tributaries after devastating floods in 1927, 1936, and 1938.
In the commission’s original compact, the states recognized that “it is in the interest of their general welfare that the United States construct in the Connecticut River Valley a comprehensive system of local protection works and dams and reservoirs to control floods and prevent loss of life and property.”
But the compact also acknowledged that the federal government’s flood-control efforts “will remove from the tax rolls of local governments of those states such property as is acquired by the United States and may work other hardships against the people of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.”
The states benefiting from the basin’s dams and reservoirs should “make reimbursement for such loss of taxes and for such hardships,” the document says.
So a structure was set up to calculate annual “tax loss” payments from Connecticut and Massachusetts to their northern neighbors, where dams had been or would be built. That structure remains in effect today.
But some complain that the system for payments in lieu of taxes, known as a PILOT program, is outdated.
As of 2013, Townshend valued federal property at the dam at $1.1 million, and that number could go even higher if future assessments factor in this year’s construction of a new hydroelectric station.
But the flood-control commission appears to use a valuation basis of just $204,780.
Townshend is getting just $5,656 annually from the PILOT arrangement. At the Oct. 19 Townshend meeting, Selectboard assistant Craig Hunt declared that “we spend more to maintain the road over the dam than we receive in payments in lieu of taxes. It actually costs us.”
Added Hege: “They’re not paying us a fair amount for the land that we lost.”
Town officials’ repeated requests for an more-equitable payment have gone nowhere. A December 2014 letter to Townshend from Connecticut River Valley Flood Control Commission Chairman Michael Misslin asserted that “adjustments to tax reimbursements are not mandatory under the compact.”
Misslin wrote that in 1982, the commission decided to “hold reimbursement amounts to each of the upstream communities constant.”
“The commission had experienced difficulties with tracking revaluations and allocating tax losses among states and towns with different taxing systems,” Misslin wrote. “No more-suitable solution was identified in that period; the commission decided it was best to freeze the reimbursement amounts. We concur with the findings of the 1982 commission members.”
As a result, the total amounts paid for flood-control tax losses throughout the entire basin don’t even reach the $50,000 mark.
Town to take action
In 2013, documents show, Connecticut paid Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont $31,390 for tax losses, while Massachusetts handed a total of $23,195 to New Hampshire and Vermont.
In the letter to Townshend, Misslin didn’t offer much hope that anything will change.
“To modify the compact, the governors of all member states would have to agree to arbitration and to increase funding,” he wrote. “Efforts to facilitate changes and increases in the reimbursement amounts have not been successful in the past and seem unlikely to succeed in the future.”
Nonetheless, Townshend officials are again trying to take action.
They’ll send a representative to the flood-control commission’s next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 4. And officials also are enlisting legislative help: In addition to contacting Long, the town may get assistance from Deen, who chairs the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resource Committee.
The town also has reached out to Vermont’s congressional delegation.
State Rep. Oliver Olsen, a Londonderry independent whose district includes the Army Corps’ Ball Mountain Dam in Jamaica, thinks federal muscle might be needed to change the system.
“There is no incentive for the [flood-control commission’s] other member states to agree to an adjustment to the underlying property valuations,” Olsen said. “A sustainable solution to the PILOT issue will require congressional action.”