Historic dams set for demolition

Last modified: 7/26/2011 12:00:00 AM
Demolition will soon be under way at Pembroke's Buck Street dams, a move state officials say will mitigate the chances of future damages along the flood-prone Suncook River but won't eliminate the threat altogether.

In the case of a catastrophic event similar to the Mothers Day flood of 2006, removing the dams would lower the water level by about one foot, according to Grace Levergood, design engineer with the state's Department of Environmental Services. The project's larger benefit, though, will be the freeing up of thousands in state funds that now go to maintaining the dated structures, she said.

"The state owns 250 dams. Before we put a lot of money into repairing these dams, we're looking at whether the dams make sense. Are we using them for anything?" she said.

Levergood said the west and east Buck Street dams do not serve a function such as creating power or pooling a lake. But they cost the state about $12,000 annually, with the possibility of hundreds of thousands of dollars being poured out for future reconstruction.

While some worry removing the dams will allow sediment to flow down the river and exacerbate future flooding, Levergood said the structures haven't stopped sediment in the past.

"Maybe the dams slowed that process, but eventually that sediment would have gone downstream anyways," she said. "During the floods, it all flows over these dams."

The dams' gates have been opened since 2007, which has offered some relief to those in flooding areas upstream. The structures' removal, being funded with $200,000 set aside for the project by the state Legislature, should take about six weeks, Levergood said. A large hammer attached to an excavation machine will slowly chip away at the dams, with the debris being caught and transported away from the site.

It will be the end for two landmarks that date back to the 1700s and at one time were the center of the small community of Pembroke. Wooden dams here were later replaced with stone ones before the Suncook Mill Co. took control of them in the 1800s. The state of New Hampshire purchased the dams in 1962.

Officials from the Department of Environmental Services and the state's Division of Historical Resources are currently working on an agreement to mitigate the loss of the historical site. Environmental Services has also been in discussion with Meet Me In Suncook, a local historical preservation group.

Levergood said a stone wall near each dam will not be destroyed, along with the east dam's gate house. The state also plans to install historical signs and minimize the area on which construction vehicles will be able to travel.

State officials will hold a final public meeting Thursday night to share information about this project and hear questions and concerns from the community. JoAnn Swiggard, a resident of one of the worst-flooded streets in Pembroke, said she hasn't missed a meeting since her home first flooded, and this one will be no different.

"If they don't remove (the dams), we're going to sink," she said. "We're going to drown. There will be deaths, causalities on this street."

The home Swiggard shares with her husband has flooded multiple times since they bought it in 2007. The first came just two months after they moved in, the waters rushing into their basement and saturating all of their unpacked boxes. Now, she doesn't store anything in the cellar, instead pushing containers under the bed and in the corners of every closet. She keeps an emergency bag always ready.

She's nervous those wanting to protect the dams' history will derail the project and keep the state from focusing on the future of those living on the river.

"Our lives aren't as important as a piece of history?" she said, looking over the river just yards away from her back porch. "That piece of history hasn't been through half of what we've been through here."

But Steve Landry, Merrimack watershed supervisor for the Department of Environmental Services, said he doesn't foresee any large opposition to moving the dams because of the benefit it will bring for those in flood-prone areas.

"There is always going to be opposition to dams being removed. People are attached to them. They see them as part of the history, of the landscape," he said. "But the hope (for Thursday's meeting) would be that we come out of the meeting with consensus and full support."

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