‘High-hazard’ Basic Creek Dam ‘not at the mercy’ of weather, says Water Board commissioner

Courtesy of the Albany Water Board --
Water flowing over the dam's spillway, which is designed to release excess water out of the reservoir.

ALBANY COUNTY — Despite a recent Associated Press investigation naming the dam at the Basic Creek Reservoir as one of two in the Helderbergs that is “unsound,” Joseph Coffey, commissioner of the Albany Water Board, told The Enterprise that, although the Basic Creek Dam spillway is “not totally level,” the board is able to control the levels of the reservoir and mitigate factors that would contribute to a flood event while repairs are being formulated. 

“It’s not like we’re at the mercy of everything,” Coffey said, explaining that reservoir levels are dropped “pretty quickly” before heavy rain events, and could be dropped “substantially, if we needed to.”

The Basic Creek reservoir supplies drinking water to the city of Albany.

The procedures for an emergency event are contained within the dam’s emergency action plan, which is updated annually as required by law and available to emergency-management officials and other relevant parties. 

The Enterprise could not obtain a copy of the emergency action plan, which is withheld from the public unless authorized by the dam owner. Coffey explained that the plans contain sensitive security information that would need to be redacted before publicization. 

Coffey said that the total costs of repair, which will likely be covered through bond financing, weren’t ready to be made public because specific plans had not yet been decided upon. 

“We’re looking at probably making a commitment to whatever plan gets it done within a year,” he said.

And in that time, “we inspect the dam weekly, monthly, annually,” said Coffey, emphasizing that, despite the alarming verbiage used in reports, the dam is being well-cared for.

The city of Albany last month publicized revenue it will earn in carbon credits — it hopes for a million dollars in the next decade — for protecting forests around the Basic Creek and Alcove reservoirs, but Coffey said the amount immediately available for reparation, about $100,000, are dwarfed by the total expense of dam repair.

The Basic Creek Dam is owned and maintained by the Albany Water Board, while the Helderberg Lake Dam, the other high-hazard Hilltown dam rated “unsound,” is owned and maintained by the Helderberg Lake Community Association, a private group of citizens led by the association president, Tom McQuayle.

 

Courtesy of the Albany Water Board --
An aerial photo of the Basic Creek Reservoir, with an ice cover stretching along the northern portion. The dam can be seen on the right side of the photo.

 

Enterprise File Photo -- Noah Zweifel
The Basic Creek Reservoir Dam seen from County Route 404, which runs across the reservoir.

 

No member of the Helderberg Lake Community Association could be reached for comment this week.

High-hazard dams are those whose “failure may result in widespread or serious damage to home(s); damage to main highways, industrial or commercial buildings, railroads and/or other important utilities, including water supply, sewage treatment, fuel, power, cable, or telephone infrastructures; or substantial environmental damage; such that the loss of human life or widespread economic loss is likely,” according to state law. 

The projected damage resulting from a dam failure is an aspect of the mandatory emergency action plans that dam owners must file with their local emergency management body. 

“There are some downstream properties that would be imperiled if that dam overtopped,” Coffey said of the Basic Creek Dam’s high-hazard rating. 

While records of dam inspections by the DEC from 2017 do not specify the factors in their ‘unsound’ designation of either dam — instead writing “more analysis needed” — the AP investigation went further and declared specific issues with each. 

The Helderberg Lake Dam is cited for cracks in the concrete and an uneven spillway crest. The Basic Creek Reservoir Dam’s spillway is considered too low. 

 

Enterprise File Photo -- Noah Zweifel
The top of the spillway of the Helderberg Lake Dam.

 

Enterprise File Photo -- Noah Zweifel
The wall of the Helderberg Lake Dam, with the spillway barely visible.

 

Dam ownership is guided by both state regulations and a manual published by the DEC in 1987 that provides a broad but comprehensive overview of dams, from their general architecture to the methods of inspection. And it does not hesitate to implicate owners in all aspects of dam safety, which is viewed as the most important aspect of dam ownership.

“Investment in dam safety should be accepted as an integral part of project costs and not viewed as an expendable item that can be eliminated if a budget becomes tight,” it reads, and elsewhere says, “Although there are a great many who are concerned about dam safety, legal and moral responsibility essentially rests with the dam owner.”

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