Reservoir dam gives way, disaster averted
Article by Dan Shohl in The Arlington Advocate, Thursday, June 22, 2000

An equipment failure sent town workers racing to plug a gushing hole in Arlington Reservoir's dam Monday afternoon [June 19]. 

Within two hours the torrent had been stopped, with a local property manager crediting quick and creative work by the Department of Public Works' repair crew in averting serious flood damage at nearby Colonial Village.

Arlington's DPW manages the water-level at Arlington Reservoir with a sluice gate, basically a door hinged to the ground beneath the water, which flows through a narrow concrete channel and empties into Mill Brook. That door opens and closes by turning a jack screw within a pole bolted to the gate and mounted on a concrete cross-beam above the sluice.

Monday afternoon, the DPW's Richard Fitzgerald was trying to raise the water level of the Res to fill a cordoned public swimming area within the reservoir. As he turned the jack handle on the sluice gate, the old and rusted connecting bar snapped.

"For the filter and aeration system in the beach to work, they needed another two inches of [water] elevation," said DPW Director Richard Bento. "Apparently age took its toll."

When the pole broke, the door swung open, and Arlington Reservoir began to empty like a bathtub with the drain-plug pulled. Brown water rushed through the sluice, filling Mill Brook and spilling over into neighbors' backyards and the parking lot of the nearby the Colonial Village apartment complex. 

The water started to flow at approximately 1:10 p.m. Additional DPW trucks and employees were immediately called to the scene. Most of the DPW's managers, including Bento, were at the dam within 15 minutes of the break, and firefighters and police were also called in. 

At first, the crew tried to raise the gate by fastening a chain and lifting it with the front bucket of a bulldozer. The door moved a few inches before the chain gave way with a sudden jerk. 

They quickly developed a second-plan. DPW welder Dan Warren would drive to the DPW yard on Grove Street, craft a metal stopper that could block the water at the entrance to the sluice, relieving the pressure and lowering the water level to the point where the men of the crew could pull it back into place.

Two workers made a quick measurement of the width of the sluice and drove back to Grove Street, where Warren trimmed a piece of plate steel 1 1/2 inches thick, normally used to cover road during street repairs. He also attached a hook that would be used to grab and lower the plate into place. 

Warren returned to the dam with the custom-tailored plate less than 45 minutes after Bento directed him to craft it. The plate was hoisted from the back of a DPW dump truck and guided into groves on either side of the sluice by the hands of three workers.

The ersatz steel dam slid into place, immediately stopping the rush of water through the sluice and relieving the pressure on the gate that had made it so difficult to move. With the pressure relived, DPW tree-worker Jim Dodge donned a harness and had a crane lower him to the gate, knee-deep in water, to which he fastened a chain. A crane then lifted the gate back into place, where a team tied it off with two chains.

Warren, Dodge and almost 10 other DPW employees received letters of commendation from Bento for their quick work and troubleshooting Monday.

The sluice gate and its jack are approximately 40 years old. Both the gate and the water-end of the pole showed a large amounts of corrosion.

As part of a temporary repair, the jack pole and gate will be removed, rebuilt and reinstalled, said Bento. The DPW had already budgeted $225,000 for more extensive work at the Res dam in fiscal year 2002, work that will include improvements to the earthen dam itself and to the water-level control structure, of which the sluice and jack are a part.

"There are a significant number of repairs that need to be done to the dam structure itself," said Bento.

Arlington Reservoir and its out-flowing Mill Brook is a source of anxiety for the residents of Colonial Village, a complex of 144 apartments in 12 buildings, located on lowland a short walk from the dam. The apartments have seen water damage come with floods that have followed storms in 1996 and 1998, and heavy rains are a source of concern.

So with the beautiful and clear weather Monday, the phone call that Arthur Gillis received Monday was a surprise. Gillis is a property manager with the company that runs Colonial Village, and he recalled getting an urgent call from the on-site manager at the complex. 

"My guy called me [and said] 'The dam's broken and we're flooding,'" he said. "You can imagine what goes into your mind at that point. It's frightening." 

The call overstated the emergency, at least at the time. Water was beginning to fill the parking lot and threaten the ground-floor apartments to four buildings, but the level had not risen to the point where it was causing damage. 

Trucks and men from the fire department and DPW were sent to Colonial Village to move cars and carry in sandbags to protect the most vulnerable property. In an instance of blind luck, Public Works had 60 sandbags already filled as part of a project planned for Mill Brook further downstream.

"Down where we were, which was ground zero, I was running back and forth with my truck in the parking lot to see how much was getting into the back parking lot," said Gillis.

The water continued to rise. Dumpsters began to float around the lot and had to be secured by the fire department. Updates on the progress of the repair came from DPW workers at the apartments, with hope pinned to the steel plug being fashioned on Grove Street.

"We kept hearing, 'They're cutting the plate, they're cutting the plate,'" said Gillis. 

Despite a close call, the fix came soon enough, and Gillis said the flood caused hardly any damage.

"I think only one car had a little water in it, and that was about it," he said.

Bento said aside from some minor damage to landscaping at the complex, he was aware of no other losses that resulted from the gate break.

Gillis gave credit to the work of town employees. 

"Those guys with the fire department, and especially the public works department, they did a great job," he said. "They put a tremendous amount effort to prevent it from [reaching] the four buildings that were directly exposed to the flooding. It was just great coordination by the town.

"If they didn't cap it as quickly as they did, we could have had tens of thousands of dollars in damage."

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