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Lack of easements complicates repair work for Lincoln’s aging levee

Union Leader Correspondent

March 18. 2014 7:14PM

LINCOLN — While in need of repairs, the levee in the east branch of the Pemigewasset River, which that protects about $24 million worth of property, is not “in a state of imminent failure,” according to Steven Doyon, the head of the state’s dam safety and inspection program.

He said the upcoming snowmelt is not expected to cause more damage to the structure.

Built in 1960 by the Army Corps of Engineers, the levee is located in the center of town and is an earthen embankment lined with large, granite rocks, and is about 1,700 feet long, between 10 to 12-feet tall and with a top width of between 12 and 15 feet, said Doyon, on Monday.

The corps built the levee, replacing a wooden gate that diverted water from the Pemi to a mill that no longer exists, and considers it, along with similar levees in Farmington, Nashua and Keene, a “flood-damage reduction project,” Doyon said.

As a condition of building the levee in Lincoln, the corps, because it could not do so with a private party, entered into an agreement with the Town of Lincoln to be the levee’s “sponsor,” said Doyon, meaning the municipality is responsible for maintaining the levee as long as it remained under the auspices of the corps.

No property easements

The levee, after having been sorely tested by floodwaters from Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012, needs to be repaired, but there are several variables in play. Foremost, Doyon said, is that the town never obtained easements from the five property owners who subsequently built on or near the levee.

Lincoln Town Manager Arthur “Butch” Burbank has said that the development cumulatively generates about $330,000 annually to the town in property taxes.

The second hurdle for the town is that voters at Town Meeting this year narrowly defeated a $1.2 million warrant article that would have covered the levee upgrades.

Lincoln is “in a tough spot” because it either has to fix the levee itself or seek a legislative solution — at the state and/or federal levels — that absolves the corps from further responsibility to the levee, which while technically “inactive” is still in the corps’ inventory, Doyon said.

The corps has inspected the levee about every two years, said Doyon, but now the levee has to be repaired back to its 1960 “active” standard so that Lincoln can remain eligible for future assistance from the corps.

“The town has to decide if they’re going to commit to this project because according to the corps, as long the levee is active or inactive the corps is responsible for doing periodic inspections, and the only way for it to be off the corps’ books entirely is through an act of the Legislature or the congressional delegation.”

Plan of attack

The corps can inspect the levee, but New Hampshire, and in particular the Department of Environmental Services for which Doyon works, can order the town to do something about it.

“From the state’s perspective, anything that impounds or diverts water and is more than six feet in height” is regulated by the state, said Doyon. Although the state hasn’t determined “what we’ll do from a regulatory standpoint, we do have an obligation to regulate this structure so it’s quite conceivable that the department (the DES) will issue a letter to do something by certain time frames. There are structures that are built onto the levee and downstream that could be damaged and that classified the structure as a ‘high-hazard dam.’”

The DES will come up with “its plans of attack,” Doyon said, but it might be hard to implement.

“Again, the issue’s with land ownership because it’s all well and good for us to direct the town to do something, but the town can say ‘we can’t because we don’t own the land,’ so before we get a shovel in the dirt, it’ll probably be more meetings with the parties to determine how we solve — or the town solves — that first issue.”

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