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Plans to vote on Mahar Dam postponed

ORANGE — The dam at Mahar Regional School has been the subject of debate since a 2009 inspection gave it a poor report card. The state Office of Dam Safety told the school district that the dam needed to be repaired, breached or removed.

The school district has applied for and been granted several extensions but has a deadline of July 30 to conform.

According to Superintendent Tari N. Thomas, it is possible that another extension may be requested due to new information brought up in a March 17 finance and facilities meeting. The Mahar School Committee was slated to vote on the course of action for the dam at a public hearing for the Mahar budget this week. Thomas says the vote will be tabled until more information regarding a new possible course of action can be gathered.

Prior to learning of a new option, the School Committee engaged the help of GZA GeoEnvironmental Inc., a consulting firm, to determine the most cost-effective course of action. Derek Schipper of GZA says that it presented a feasibility study to remove the dam as an original option. He also said that it presented options to breach and to repair as well.

According to the website mahardam.org, maintained by citizens in favor of maintaining the dam, the committee previously decided that the most viable option based on reports from GZA would be to breach.

Carl Sauter, a local resident and Mahar alumnus, is an advocate for keeping the dam. Sauter, a field service engineer at Rodney Hunt, says his father was involved in the original building of the dam when the school was first constructed. Sauter asked the School Committee in September of 2012 to allow him to work on the project voluntarily to bring the dam up to code. The School Committee voted to support him at that time.

Sauter reported at a meeting at the beginning of the month that he and a team of 12 volunteers worked on clearing all of the trees off of the dam, a project he says took close to 800 volunteer work hours. Having the dam free of trees is a major component in bringing it into compliance. Sauter says the trees have been removed, but the stumps and roots still need to come out. The upstream slope of the dam needs to be graded and built up and additional cosmetic fixes are necessary.

The School Committee heard Sauter’s assessment of the dam and its educational value in regards to hands-on experience for students in science classes. Principal Ishmael Tabales indicated students use the dam for class in the springtime once or twice. School Committee member Heidi Shortis pointed out that with continued costs for dam upkeep, maybe the school doesn’t necessarily need to have the dam if it’s not being utilized.

Updated financial information from GZA GeoEnvironmental Inc. was discussed at the Finance and Facilities meeting on March 17. Sauter, in attendance, proposed a new idea of trying to obtain a non-jurisdictional designation for the dam. As defined on the mass.gov website, a non-jurisdictional dam is not regulated by the state. Thomas said that up until that meeting no one had mentioned this option and that it’s intriguing. She says that she’s not making a popular decision by holding off the vote, but that either way it boils down to money. The school district has spent in excess of $110,000 on the dam so far. The proposed costs by GZA for breaching the dam is $300,000 and the cost to repair it and bring it into compliance is $420,000.

Thomas acknowledges that she has received feedback to look into other firms that may be less expensive, but her concern is that the money being spent isn’t being spent on students. A $50,000 loan that was taken out for the dam in 2012 has not been touched so that money will be put towards future expenses.

Director of Finance and Facilities Thomas Bates said the school administrator will check into the non-jurisdictional dam route. Bates says the water depth of the pond is slightly above six feet, what’s required to be non-jurisdictional. Possibly upgrading the dam gate with a lowering system to decrease the water in the pond is something they’ll investigate.

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