Helderberg dam owners hope for a blessing as grants become available

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

The Helderberg Lake Dam is awaiting repairs that will bring it up to state code.

BERNE — It’s awards season for those who are trying to get state money to fund dam repairs, and the Helderberg Lake Association is hoping to make the most of it.

A grant award is the easiest solution the association has for funding repairs to the high-hazard Helderberg Lake Dam, which is out of compliance with state codes and needs to be rehabilitated, with expense estimates as high as $500,000. 

“High-hazard” refers to the degree of damage that can be expected in the event of a dam failure, and is the worst rating since it includes loss of life on top of significant economic and infrastructural damage. It does not refer to the likelihood of a failure. 

Association president Tom McQuade told The Enterprise this week that having “a pretty good grant writer, who’s experienced in it,” is important, and that the group has two people — friends of friends, essentially — who might be able to help the association get some of the roughly $500,000 that the New York State Department of Conservation is handing out to dam owners. 

“One was from the state, I think he’s retired,” McQuade said of the volunteer grant writers. “The other is actually from Massachusetts, but his wife is a pretty good grant writer, as I understand.”

Public funding for dam repairs was accelerated through President Joe Biden’s trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, signed last year. 

In 2019, the Associated Press performed an analysis of dams in the United States and found 1,688 high-hazard dams that were in need of repair, noting that many of these dams are privately owned, like the Helderberg Lake Dam, making widespread repair harder due to people or organizations being unwilling or unable to foot the bill for repairs. 

This year, the AP reassessed and found that the number of dams in poor condition has gone up, and that fully repairing all the dams would likely cost $76 billion. The infrastructure bill had invested $3 billion, the wire service said. 

The Helderberg Lake Association had tried to get help from the town of Berne, asking it to take out a loan on its behalf and establish a tax district over the lake community to repay the funds. Rejecting arguments that failure of the dam would be a town-wide issue, the town board voted unanimously against it earlier this year, citing the “administrative burden” and various liabilities while asserting it was a “public solution for a private problem,” among other things. 

The board’s inaction was a huge setback for the association, which was frustrated not just with the decision, but the fact that it took the board several months and just as many heated meetings to solidify what seemed to be an immediate opposition to the idea. 

McQuade said this week that, since then, the association has received private pledges for a significant portion of the repair costs, but that grants, at this point, are needed to go all the way and carry out the repair plans that have already been vetted and approved by the necessary agencies. 

The total expense may be different than originally anticipated, too, and McQuade said they’re going to put a bid out to get a solid number, since estimates range from $250,000 to $500,000. 

“A lot of people don’t want to work on dams because of the liabilities,” McQuade said.

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