What If the Village Dams Break?

Public meeting considers Emergency Action Plan

By Michael Turton

Dams can fail, and the Village of Cold Spring is prepared and has plans in place to deal with that situation if problems arise at the dams it maintains. That was the central message at a public meeting held at HaldaneSchool on Tuesday, Feb. 19. Representatives from Tectonic, an engineering firm based in Mountainville, N.Y., addressed about 25 residents and local officials, outlining the Emergency Action Plan (EAP) that would be followed in the event of a failure at any or all of the village dams. Tectonic was hired by the village to draft the plan.

The Lower Dam is located on Lake Surprise Road above Cold Spring. M. Turton photo

The Lower Dam is located on Lake Surprise Road above Cold Spring.
M. Turton photo

Cold Spring’s water supply comes from three reservoirs located on higher ground more than two miles above the village — two on Lake Surprise Road and one on Fishkill Road. The reservoirs owe their existence to a series of three dams that impound water from area streams and surface runoff. Water flows down from the Upper and Lower Dams on Lake Surprise Road to the Foundry Brook Dam and village water treatment facility on Fishkill Road. Treated water is then piped underground to the village with surplus surface waters following Foundry Brook down through Nelsonville and Cold Spring before emptying into the Hudson River.

Like all manmade structures, the dams could fail, at least partially. Such breaches can be caused by structural weaknesses that develop over time or as a result of a catastrophic event such as an earthquake.

Mark Lukasik, a professional engineer with Tectoncic, said the purpose of meeting was to make residents aware of the emergency plan — including ongoing efforts to ensure that a failure does not occur. Those in attendance were given a quick lesson on the makeup of the village water system, the location of village dams, how they are maintained, and what they can expect if the EAP has to be implemented.

Foundry Brook Dam

Foundry Brook Dam

Dams in New York state are closely monitored by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. In addition to its EAP, the Village of Cold Spring is required to certify that its dams are structurally sound on an annual basis. It must also have an Inspection and Maintenance Plan in place, and periodic, detailed engineering assessments of the dams are also mandatory.

Cold Spring’s EAP includes mapping that shows what areas would be inundated based on various scenarios, such as failure of a 100-foot section of a dam at one or more of the dam locations. Scenarios take into account the impact of such a failure on a rain-drenched day versus a similar event taking place on a sunny, dry day. The latter scenario would result in a less severe emergency. Casey O’Mara, a professional engineer with Tectonic, said that it in the rain-drenched scenario, the wave of water would take approximately an hour to travel from the Upper Dam to the Hudson River. In the case of the sunny day scenario, waters would take up to 90 minutes to reach the mouth of Foundry Brook.

The EAP includes rapid notification of all residents and property owners in the affected areas as well as numerous public agencies — from the Putnam County Office of Emergency Services and New York State Office of Emergency Management to local police, fire and highway departments. Data contained in the plan, including residents’ contact information, is updated annually. More than 100 residences are located within the affected area, although in some sections, such as along Fishkill Road and Foundry Brook below the Route 9D bridge, few if any houses would be affected.

The Upper Dam, located just off of Lake Surprise Road, was built in the mid-1800s and originally served the West Point Foundry before being taken over by the Village of Cold Spring in the 1920s. Photo by M. Turton

The Upper Dam, located just off of Lake Surprise Road, was built in the mid-1800s and originally served the West Point Foundry before being taken over by the Village of Cold Spring in the 1920s. Photo by M. Turton

The dams are an integral part of Cold Spring’s history. Originally constructed in the mid-19th century to serve the West Point Foundry, they were taken over by the Village of Cold Spring in the 1920s. “They’re well built; they’re very strong dams,” said Cold Spring Mayor Seth Gallagher in his opening remarks at the meeting. Gallagher said that while a recent engineering analysis found the dams to be in “generally good condition,” the village will have to spend about $3-4 million to maintain them as part of a long-term plan.

When that maintenance work is undertaken, one of the first steps will be to ensure that Cold Spring’s water supply is not interrupted. Work on the dams, including reconstruction of a concrete apron at their base, will require water levels in the reservoirs to be lowered significantly. Greg Phillips, Cold Spring’s Water and Wastewater superintendent, was also in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting and said that during dam maintenance the village will tap into the Catskill Aqueduct where it traverses the area near the Philipstown Highway Department facility on Fishkill Road. The aqueduct transports water from the Catskill Mountains to New York City. The NYC Department of Environmental Protection manages the aqueduct and will be doing maintenance on it in the Cold Spring area next November. Phillips said an improved connection from the aqueduct to the village will be installed then. He said an old connection exists, but it is no longer adequate to serve village needs. He estimates that work on the Cold Spring dams is still more than a year away.

While the meeting was very positive overall, Lukasik was nonetheless cautious. “You can’t bullet-proof everything,” he said. “There is risk to property and people.” Lukasik said that even though extreme rain events are used for modeling and emergency planning purposes, “Dams need to be robust … maintained and inspected,” and that engineering analyses must be conducted. Gallagher said that village staff inspect the dams after every significant storm event.

In the event of an emergency at the dams, the North Highlands Firehouse on Fishkill Road would serve as the command center.

Copies of the EAP are available for public review at the village office at 85 Main St. in Cold Spring.


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