Time to give a dam

Saugus Special Town Meeting went on a spending spree Monday night, including $150,000 to get the town into compliance with the state on the design and construction of local dams.

Dams are one of those out of sight, out of mind public works expenses that rarely get attention until one springs a leak or an inspector sounds dire warnings about a dam’s integrity. Dams are almost as common as ponds in Saugus and surrounding communities and dam safety and maintenance involves state oversight with local cooperation and assistance from specialized engineering companies.

Maintenance work runs the gamut from sophisticated soil testing equipment to routine mowings intended to keep grass or weed roots from burrowing too deep into a dam and promoting erosion.

Bridges across Massachusetts came to the forefront of media attention and debate by elected officials in 2011 after a smattering of aging spans were declared unsafe or in need of repair. Threats posed by the bridges were underscored when concrete chunks fell off the undersides of bridges and struck vehicles traveling under them.

People drive over or under bridges every day but they rarely glance at a dam like the one on Walnut Street in Lynn and rarely think about dams unless they live next to one. Saugus’ commitment to spending money on state compliance standards represents a commitment neighboring communities should copy.

Public works departments should check with state dam safety officials and ensure all inspection and maintenance requirements for local dams are up to date. These information update efforts potentially cost little, if any, money and ensure local and state officials are communicating about a potential safety topic.

State inspection and oversight practices sometimes get lumped into the catch-all phrase, “local mandate,” with city and town officials often accurately claiming their communities bear the cost of implementing standards outlined in regulations enforced by the state.

But there has been more than one tragedy involving a roadway, dam or bridge that prompted local officials in the aftermath of an injury or death to point the finger at a state agency and declare, “Why didn’t someone check on this sooner?”

That question is sincerely directed to people who do not always have the resources and time to ensure every inspection is completed and every maintenance request is acted on. Local inspectors will probably be doing their state counterparts a favor if they initiate efforts to ensure dams are inspected and maintenance efforts are initiated instead of waiting for state officials to get the ball rolling.

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