December 15, 2010

New dam regulations too expensive for Erin

As published in The Erin Advocate

The Town of Erin could be forced to remove the Church Street Dam on the West Credit River if it cannot afford the cost of maintaining it under new regulations now being proposed.

The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) is responsible for Ontario dams, but no requirements now exist to ensure safe management of the structures, which can deteriorate and become prone to failure.

If the proposed changes to the Lakes and River Improvement Act become law, dam owners could bear the cost of inspections, a long-term safety review and various plans for operation, maintenance and upgrades. Costs could range from $105,000 to $240,00 per dam – not including the capital costs of actual upgrades.

"These requirements will require significant staff resources that we do not have," said Water Superintendent Frank Smedley, who alerted Council to the proposed changes in a recent report.

"The initial, capital and ongoing cost will also be significant and may impact the tax rate. It is likely the Hulls Dam will need rebuilding due to being in poor condition. The cost is likely to be substantial. Decommissioning this structure may be the best option."

The Town owns the dam, near the end of Church Street West (also known as Hulls Dam), and has partial ownership of the Station Road Dam near the Hillsburgh Fire Hall, according to Smedley's report. There are also several privately-owned dams in the Hillsburgh area, in Stanley Park and at Charles Street in Erin village.

Smedley said it may be also be difficult to get approval to decommission a dam through the Environmental Assessment process, since it would change the existing ecosystem, create flooding risks and result in "significant negative implications to the surrounding properties".

Henry Trout built the Charles Street Dam in 1826 and operated a sawmill there, which was purchased by Daniel McMillan in 1829. McMillan built a series of mills, including the 1838 Oat Mill (now the Planing Mill) that helped drive the early growth of the village. In 1845, McMillan built a second sawmill, at the Church Street Dam he had constructed, then in 1849 used water diverted from that pond to power his Grist Mill on the other side of Main Street.

These two dams are significant artifacts of Erin history, and the ponds have become a key part of our environment and heritage. The loss of either would be a major disappointment to many residents.

Dana Mundell owns the Charles Street Dam mechanism, while the Town owns the bridge, and the road bed which helps hold back the water. He also owns the Grist Mill and the Planing Mill, which is still in operable condition, as well as water rights, granted by the Crown to mill owners for power generation.

While he wants to preserve the Charles Street Dam, Mundell is not prepared to spend huge sums on plans and maintenance programs. He has seen provincial dam initiatives come and go over the years, and he doubts that this one will have much impact.

"The dam is safe," he said. "I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. It held in Hurricane Hazel."

In 1954, Hazel blasted the Toronto area, killing 81 people. It destroyed a dam on the Humber River, washed out some 50 bridges in the region and swept dwellings into Lake Ontario. It spurred a major effort to improve storm water control.

Some minor concrete work was done on the Charles Street Dam a few years ago. The dam is lowered occasionally to flush out algae and improve water quality in the pond. If a major storm is expected, the pond level is lowered in advance to help absorb the flow.

In comments submitted to the MNR, Smedley said the proposed system "will create extreme financial hardships", and urged the government to set up initial and ongoing funding for small municipalities and private dam owners.

"These dams were typically installed many years ago and contributed to the growth and prosperity of our province as a whole. Now that these structures do not generate taxable revenue, the province which benefited from them in the past should pay for a significant percentage of their remediation."

He said communities downstream should support upgrades in Erin, since they benefit from the storm water control the dams provide, and urged the ministry to consult with the local stake holders before any new dam requirements become law.

So what should be done with Erin's dams? I will have more information in the coming weeks on their environmental impact and their role in the local economy.