Northborough begins planning process to remove ‘hazardous’ dam

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Northborough begins planning process to remove ‘hazardous’ dam
Photo by/Dakota Antelman
Water flows over the existing dam at the Northborough Reservoir.

By Dakota Antelman, Managing Editor

NORTHBOROUGH – A historic but potentially hazardous dam straddling Boylston and Shrewsbury will eventually come down thanks in part to grant funding recently won by the Town of Northborough. 

In a discussion at Northborough’s June 14 Board of Selectmen meeting, Department of Public Works director Scott Charpentier focused on an aging structure just over a thousand feet from the town line in front of the aptly named “Northborough Reservoir.”

The dam once helped control Northborough’s water supply which, according to archived state documents, funneled water into town via a short aqueduct. It’s long since been rendered moot, though, as Northborough switched water supplies in 1954, Charpentier said.

Northborough begins planning process to remove ‘hazardous’ dam
Photo by/Dakota Antelman
The Northborough Reservoir sits behind an old dam now deemed hazardous by state authorities.

“It serves no useful purpose,” he explained.

As this dam decays, the state’s Office of Dam Safety has determined it to be in poor condition, threatening houses and other properties immediately downstream with a potential failure. 

Northborough, therefore, has been ordered to remove or repair the structure. 

The town already conducted a feasibility study for dam removal in 2019, finding such a removal process to be less than half the cost of repairing the dam. 

“The removal and repair costs for dams are extremely different,” Charpentier said.  

Needing roughly $225,000 just to start the planning and permitting process for this project, Northborough sought a specific state grant in February that would offer 75 percent funding with a 25 percent expected local contribution. 

Town meeting voters approved that local portion of the dam removal bill earlier this year, contingent on the town winning the grant. Now, the state has, indeed, confirmed its contribution.

“We’re ready to go forward,” Charpentier said. 

The road ahead, both Charpentier and Town Administrator John Coderre note, is long. 

Northborough begins planning process to remove ‘hazardous’ dam
Photo by/Dakota Antelman
A dam in Northborough has been deemed hazardous due to its condition as well as the potential impacts of a hypothetical dam failure on downstream properties.

The design and permitting process will take between 18 and 24 months, involving a myriad of tests and logistical challenges.

Beyond just removing the dam, crews have to draw cores from sediment around the structure to study its composition. They’ll also have to contend with piles of built-up sediment behind the dam that could otherwise flow downstream if not properly contained.

“It’s an exhaustive process,” Charpentier said. 

Once all this is done, the removal can then finally begin. Official hope that work, which could cost upwards of $1 million, will draw on more grant money. 

It’s all worth it, though, officials agree, not only for the safety concerns this dam poses but for the environmental benefit of its removal. 

This, they say, will begin to undo a man-made vestige of Central Massachusetts’ early industrial age. 

“This is a win-win,” said Selectman Kristen Wixted on June 14.

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