On April 11, 1840, a severe rainstorm hit Johnston, lasting two days. Water rose behind the then upper Simmonsville dam, and on the morning of the 13th, the dike gave way. A wall of water, 11 feet high, rushed downstream, collapsing another dam and stricking the Simmonsville mill village with a vengeance.
Eighteen people died, including eight members from one family. It remains one of the worst dam failure disasters in Rhode Island’s history.
“After looking at our dams and the work we’ve done, I feel pretty confident that won’t happen again,” said Mayor Joseph Polisena. “If we get a 500 year storm, anything can happen, but I think I have a better chance of getting struck by lightening twice in the same spot. I really believe that the things we’ve done already have helped.”
Last Friday, U.S. Senator Jack Reed joined Mayor Polisena, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) Director Janet Coit, engineers and dam safety officials at the Almy Dam, which is hidden away off of Central Avenue in Johnston, for a press conference highlighting the need to repair “high hazard” dams across the state and country.
According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO), the number of high hazard potential dams increased nationally from 9,281 in 1998 to more than 14,700 in 2013. Rhode Island has 667 dams, 96 of which are classified as high hazard. There are 24 dams in Cranston. According to DEM’s 2015 compliance and inspection report, 18 are considered low hazard, one is labeled significant hazard, and five are designated as high hazard dams: Clarke’s Pond Upper, the Cranston Print Works pond, the Curran Upper and Lower reservoirs, and Stone Pond.
“This is infrastructure, but to many people it’s invisible. They don’t see a dam here, but if it’s not maintained and repaired there will be problems, and it could be cataclysmic problems,” said Sen. Reed.
Federal, state, and local officials are working in a conjunctive effort to improve Rhode Island’s dams and protect lives, homes, and businesses from similar catastrophes.
The senate recently passed key elements of Sen. Reed’s High Hazard Potential Small Dam Safety Act. The bipartisan legislation, cosponsored by Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), would authorize $445 million in federal grant assistance for the rehabilitation and repair of non-federal, high hazard dams nationwide.
Dams “need to be maintained. Some need to be rebuilt some need to be taken out. They play a huge role in our water supply, our flood control, our recreation, and community uses,” said Reed. “We have to ensure that they’re in good shape.”
If Reed’s bill becomes law and is fully funded, Rhode Island would be eligible for up to $700,000 per year to help inspect, repair, and rehabilitate high hazard dams. The legislation has passed the senate as part of a larger bill, the Water Resources Development Act, and Reed hopes the initiative will be approved by the current administration.
If not, he will continue the effort next year.
"I'm thankful for Sen. Reed's efforts in securing funding to address dam repairs. We welcome any assistance as we work to ensure all of our dams are structurally sound and secure. Cranston residents know first-hand how devastating flooding can disrupt lives and destroy property. I agree with Senator Reed that this is an important issue and appreciate his hard work on behalf of our residents."
“I’m quite confident that we know where the high hazard dams are and that we’re working everyday on programs to push the dam owners to fix the high hazard dams,” said DEM Director Janet Coit, whose department oversees dam inspections, adding that it will take years before all are fixed. “There’s a sense of urgency here that we want to see these repairs done as soon as possible, so we’re going to keep the pressure on dam owners.”