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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

State announces alternatives to draining Sweet Pond

GUILFORD—To applause from residents, representatives from the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation (FPR) announced that they would recommend replacing the dam at the Sweet Pond State Park, rather than removing the structure and draining Guilford’s only swimming hole.

Tim Morton, FPR stewardship forester, told the audience at a Conservation Commission meeting last Thursday that, in light of the park's recreational opportunities, the pond's importance to the community, and minimal environmental impact, the local stewards were recommending to their superiors that the state replace the Sweet Pond dam.

“That’s the first baby step for us,” Morton said.

He warned that numerous pieces still had to fall into place before the local stewards could announce the dam’s final fate.

Morton added that four other alternatives were under consideration for Sweet Pond.

Besides replacing the dam, engineers and FPR decision-makers will look at removing the dam and draining the pond, rehabilitating the existing structure, constructing a new dam at a different location, and constructing a smaller (lower) dam that would allow for a lower hazard rating.

Ethan Phelps, parks regional manager, said that the alternatives would be evaluated on the basis of cost, aesthetic impact, recreational opportunities, historic character, public safety, and public acceptance.

Morton said that the local stewards would send their recommendation to replace the dam, along with the four alternatives, up the chain of command to the Lands Team for review.

From there, a report will move on to the management level and, finally, to the “political level.”

The local stewards are also awaiting an engineering report from DuBois & King, Inc., the consulting engineering firm that studied the Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Brattleboro.

Phelps said the firm would evaluate the reconstruction and removal options for the dam. DuBois & King, he said, were familiar with the structure, having written its emergency action plan.

In response to an audience member’s question about the time frame for making a decision, Phelps replied “as soon as we can reasonably get to it,” adding that he foresees the work taking months, not years.

Phelps said that monies for the Sweet Pond dam would come from a capital appropriation from FPR’s fiscal year 2012 budget.

Morton declined to comment on how much any of the alternatives would cost or how much money was available, saying that it would be “irresponsible” at this early stage.

‘The bomb’

The drawdown of Sweet Pond is nearly complete, said Phelps.

The state has drained the majority of the pond’s water to take pressure off the dam, while engineers and the FPR decide what to do next.

Before the drawdown, the pond held the equivalent of 18 acres of water. Phelps estimates roughly one acre of water remains today and is at a safe level for the dam.

Morton apologized to residents for the dam removal “bomb” the FPR department dropped at a March 24 meeting. He said that the team behind the Long Range Management Plan for the parks within the Brattleboro management unit had learned only a week before that the existing dam could not be fixed.

The Brattleboro management unit includes Sweet Pond, Fort Dummer in Brattleboro, Guilford, and Vernon; Dutton Pines in Dummerston; and Molly Stark in Wilmington.

According to Morton, during the following 30-day response period to the Long Range Management Plan, 95 percent of the responses centered on Sweet Pond.

The feedback “came from across the whole planet,” said Morton.

As Phelps informed an audience at a March 24 public meeting, Dam Safety Section engineers had told the FPR that the 1920s-era dam retaining the equivalent of 18 acres of water in Sweet Pond was unstable and the spillway deficient, earning the structure a “poor condition” rating from the engineers.

The two options outlined at the March 24 meeting were lowering the pond’s water level or draining it completely.

According to the Long Range Management Plan, the dam’s safety rating has bounced between fair and poor, despite extensive repairs from 1986 to 1988.

Engineers also gave Sweet Pond dam a “high” hazard rating based on the potential loss of life, homes, or infrastructure if the dam broke, said Dam Safety Engineer Steve Bushman in a previous interview.

Bushman, who works for the state’s Dam Safety Section, said the two dam-break analyses the engineers performed showed the potential for significant risk for those downstream.

The “sunny day” analysis, which studied the damage of a normal water level in the pond, revealed that three downstream residences would be “inundated” with water. The second “storm day” analysis reviewed the worst-case scenario, such as a 100-year flood, and found that water would damage six residences.

In response to the FPR’s plan, residents launched a grassroots effort to save Sweet Pond.

Guilford’s work

Katie Buckley, Guilford’s treasurer, reported that hydro engineer Laura Wildman has taken a second look at the Sweet Pond dam.

Wildman, according to Buckley, had reviewed the dam in 2002. Buckley said Wildman told her that she recommends dam removals. But because the community held Sweet Pond dear, she believes the dam should be repaired.

Buckley added that Wildman said that community support is vital to getting the money from the state for any repairs.

The town could also vote to pass a special article setting up a reserve fund for Sweet Pond, financed with the property tax paid by the state on Sweet Pond property, Buckley said.

State Rep. Michael Hebert, R-Vernon, said that it’s important the town be willing to put its money where its mouth is.

Hebert also cautioned, upon recommendation from Agency of Natural Resources attorneys, against the town taking ownership of the dam.

With ownership comes liability if the dam breaks, he said.

Conservation Commission Chair Linda Hecker said that Ann Cousins, field service representative for the Preservation Trust of Vermont, has visited Sweet Pond as well.

Cousins told Hecker that the trust has a $500 matching grant that would allow the town to hire a consultant to study the dam if the town wants a second opinion.

“At the state level, there’s a high degree of awareness,” said Hecker.

She said that residents had spoken to Windham County Democratic senators Jeanette White and Peter Galbraith about the Sweet Pond dam situation.

Message from Montpelier

Hebert spoke about his work on behalf of constituents seeking to preserve Sweet Pond.

He said that he had attended a meeting in Wilmington with fellow legislators about Sweet Pond. At the meeting, representatives from Mendon told Hebert about the “disappointing” loss of the Rutland County town’s dam and pond.

The people told Hebert, “We should have fought harder. We didn’t get on the bandwagon soon enough or hard enough.”

Hebert will tour the former pond, now a reported “ugly growth,” in Mendon next week.

Hebert said that he has about a dozen legislators interested in assisting with saving Sweet Pond once the next legislative session begins in January.

“[They’re] a broad spectrum of legislators who will do what they can, but we need to show them we’re serious,” Hebert told the audience.

Morton echoed Hebert’s message of a unified community front, advising residents to keep the decision-makers' focus, because Guilford would be competing for both capital and attention from other groups wanting the same things from the state.

“Timing is important,” Morton added, and suggested that the community choose when to invite representatives or send materials to decision-makers at “key points” in the process.

“You risk flaming out too early and exhausting people,” he said.

Morton said he would keep people informed of important milestones if they wanted to coordinate events around them.

Moving forward

Residents discussed next steps for the community, such as compiling a Sweet Pond archive, working with the school to produce a documentary on the park, and printing lawn signs and bumper stickers.

Abutter William Schroeder said that he used to look out his windows at the pond.

“Now, I look out my window and see a big mud pit,” he said.

Dennis Franklin, a downstream property owner, said that the dam’s stability didn’t concern him.

“That dam’s been that way my whole life,” he said.

Hecker suggested that someone should speak with downstream residents, and perhaps supply some education, since “the pond is going away in their interest.”

The audience decided to wait for DuBois & King’s engineering report, which will outline the alternatives and costs, before developing an action strategy.

Morton anticipates the report within a month or two.

After the meeting, Morton said that the local stewards’ decision to change their recommendation to replace the Sweet Pond dam was based “70 percent in response to the community, and 30 percent on our own feelings.”

Phelps said that even if the state replaces the Sweet Pond dam, the structure will always have a “high” hazard rating. Dam hazard ratings are based on the amount of damage that would occur downstream if the dam gave way.

A new or restored dam, however, would be built to a higher standard than the current structure, he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #101 (Wednesday, May 18, 2011).

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