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The Fight for Lake Warner

Residents rally to fix the dam that gives North Hadley a heritage of natural beauty.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Pete Westover photo courtesy of Kestrel Trust

To some, it’s a piece of decaying infrastructure that’s probably not worth the cost of repair and maintenance. Or they may not be aware of it at all.

To others, it’s the linchpin of a small environmental paradise: a winding 70-acre lake under a mountain within a wildlife corridor that’s home to bear, deer, moose and beaver; a place for boating and hiking that adds beauty in all seasons to the village of North Hadley. “It’s a jewel beyond price. It’s so calm and beautiful over there,” says Hadley resident Andrew Morris-Friedman.

A battle is waging for the survival of that lake—Lake Warner—and in that contest, everything depends on the dam, without which there would be no lake, says Morris-Friedman, who is vice-chairman of the lake’s advocacy group, the Friends of Lake Warner and the Mill River (www.friendsoflakewarner.org). Late in 2012, the state Office of Dam Safety ordered that by December 31, 2014 the deteriorating dam either be repaired or demolished.

Water quality in the lake has suffered in recent years because of drought, sedimentation and invasive growth, which have somewhat diminished the lake’s reputation as a fishing spot. But the water quality problems can be remedied, say the Friends, if the lake can be preserved—which means repairing and maintaining the dam.

At the moment, the dam is owned by the Amherst-based Kestrel Land Trust, which acquired the limited liability corporation that owns the dam when it merged in 2011 with the Valley Land Fund. However, just last week the Friends of Lake Warner announced that it intends to take ownership of the dam. The Friends and Kestrel Trust have developed a plan to repair the dam and create a fund for its ongoing maintenance; the cost of implementing the plan is estimated at about $350,000. The Kestrel Trust would put in $75,000; the Friends hope for $125,000 from the state; $50,000 in private donations would be needed, of which about $10,000 has come in already. Now the Friends are making their bid for the other piece, $100,000 in Community Preservation Act funding from the town of Hadley.

The dam is not only a key piece of infrastructure for maintaining the lake; it’s an historic object in its own right. It’s 96 years old, and stands at a site where water-powered mills operated for more than 300 years. The Hadley Historical Commission has voted in favor of maintaining it, and the town’s Conservation Commission has voted to preserve the lake. The Selectboard, however, has been reluctant to support repairs for the dam. But a request for the funding is scheduled for a vote at Town Meeting on May 1.

A study done for the Kestrel Trust by Root Engineering of Springfield indicates that the idea of repairing the dam is a viable one. Problems with the dam listed by Root include growth of vegetation on the dam; leaking through cracks in the concrete parts; nonfunctioning low-level outlet gates, and deteriorating masonry on lateral walls. But, said the engineers, the spillway is adequate and the dam itself is stable. The vegetation needs to be removed, they said, and some areas reconstructed. They estimated the cost of repair at $240,000, far less than the $750,000 they calculated would be needed to demolish the dam and remediate the river. After repairs are completed, the yearly cost of maintaining the dam would be $1,250 to $3,000, according to the report.

But some Hadley residents believe the town can make a better investment with $100,000 in CPA money than contributing it for the repair of a dam that’s a survival of an older time on a lake that will need additional expensive remediation.

“I’m going to be getting some more info about cities and towns that have dams that are blocked off,” said Selectwoman Joyce Chunglo. “Personally, I have other things that I think are more important. We’re going through now with a committee to see what we need to do with our buildings.”

Chunglo said she also fears that the CPA grant would lead to more expenditures for the town. “I’m afraid they’re going to continue on and want money to clean up the lake,” she said. “They’re still cleaning up Norwottuck Pond in Easthampton, and the state money wasn’t enough.”

However, Chunglo noted, she is not totally opposed to the dam project. “If that’s what Town Meeting wants,” she said, “that’s what we’ll do.”

Morris-Friedman explained that the town would have no legal responsibility for the dam under the plan developed by the Friends and the Kestrel Trust. “There would be no municipal responsibility or liability,” he said. “The friends would purchase the LLC that owns the dam from Kestrel. The LLC not only protects the town, but it protects the officers of the Friends group.”

In advance of the May 1 Town Meeting, the Friends of Lake Warner will hold an informational meeting to provide town residents with detailed explanations of the plan to repair the dam. The meeting will take place at the Hadley Community Senior Center on April 22 from 7 to 8 p.m. Four days later, on April 26, the Friends have scheduled a “Lake Warner Day” from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., with free 20-minute canoe rides and chances to read informational posters on the history and science of the dam and the mission of the Friends group. “Hopefully, we can get more people out on the lake,” said Morris-Friedman. “Nobody who’s ever been on it is opposed.” •

 

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