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Answers needed about funding for Leesville Pond dam repairs.

Byline: Joan L. Crowell


Six years ago, Leesville Pond, located in Auburn and Worcester, was described in a Telegram & Gazette report as one of the most damaged waterways in Worcester. Leesville is still a pond in trouble. The sediment buildup and nutrient load are threatening its future.

Leesville Pond is the receiving basin for waterways in Worcester, Leicester, Paxton, Auburn, Millbury and Sutton. Improving the water quality of the Leesville Pond watershed, one of the major headwater tributaries to the Blackstone River, will have a direct impact on downstream waters.

The Leesville Pond Watershed and Neighborhood Association adopted Leesville Pond, the neglected stepchild of the town of Auburn. The Pond Association has worked tirelessly to restore it to class B water-quality standards. Because the pond is on the state's list of impaired water bodies, the Federal Clean Water Act requires the state to create a plan for improving the water body.

For Leesville Pond, first and foremost, the recommendation was to repair the dam.

After many years of submitting grant applications for the repair, the Pond Association in 2003 succeeded in winning an $118,000 federal grant for the Leesville Pond Dam Restoration Project. Leesville Pond, which was included in the Narragansett Bay Grant Proposal, was one of 20 funded proposals out of 179 applicants nationwide. With this funding, it appeared to be the best chance in many years to reverse decades of neglect and save this major headwater of the Blackstone River watershed.

The $118,000 grant was contingent on obtaining $60,000 in matching funds. While friends of Leesville Pond were making pledges to the "Save Leesville Pond Fund," the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority stepped up to the plate and provided a $60,000 grant. (The Save Leesville Pond Fund is safe and secure in the Pond Association's account and will be used to pay for additional repairs for improving water quality called for in the comprehensive plan for Leesville Pond.)

Securing the two grants was the result of years of advocacy for Leesville Pond by local, state and federal entities. It is unfortunate and disappointing that, even with this combined effort and support of so many, the town of Auburn appears not to have taken this commitment seriously.

As of this writing, the town has been unwilling or unable to account for the turnpike authority grant. Because our Pond Association worked so hard in obtaining funding for the dam repairs, we are very concerned with the accounting of the grant monies, and it is only natural that we continue to be watchdogs for the project. Recently, after paying Auburn $103 for copies of project invoices acquired under the Freedom of Information Act, we immediately found an error worth more than $9,500 in the request for reimbursement through the federal grant.

Complicating the matter, the town decided in 2004 to include both the Auburn Pond Dam reconstruction and the Leesville Pond Dam repairs in the same construction bid contract. Our fears that combining the two projects would create confusion seem to be warranted.

According to the invoices we obtained, there has been a disproportionate amount of engineering design expenses charged to the Leesville Pond project. Design expenses for Leesville Pond Dam have been invoiced at about $14,000, or 21 percent of the $67,000 construction costs. In comparison, design expenses for Auburn Pond Dam have been invoiced at only $5,000, or 2 percent of the $240,000 construction costs.

It's mind-boggling to witness so many glitches in what should have been a simple project. Auburn decided that instead of restoring the sluice gates for water-level control, a much cheaper stop-log assembly would be installed. Instead of repairing the sluice gates - or leaving them in place for historic value or for restoration at a later date - they were unnecessarily removed at a cost of $5,000.

The town also tried to eliminate the dam flashboards required under the federal grant agreement and improperly drew down the pond level 3 feet last summer, despite drought conditions.

With a total of $189,000 in the Leesville Pond dam restoration budget, it's hard to comprehend why the project has consistently been shortchanged on repairs. The concrete work on the dam appears to be mainly cosmetic and was done primarily in the sluiceway area. There is still major deterioration of the side retaining walls, and repairs to the spillway have not been done - despite the possibility that the Office of Dam Safety may reclassify the Leesville dam from a "significant hazard dam" to a "high hazard dam."

We should be celebrating the recent repairs to the dam, but the Pond Association is outraged with the inadequate repairs and extremely frustrated with the lack of accounting for the Leesville funds. We also are concerned that the grant monies may be in jeopardy if there has been, or, what appears to be, mismanagement of the funds.

Based on data provided by the town of Auburn, it appears about $90,000 in Leesville funds have not been expended on the Leesville Pond Dam Restoration Project. The funds that were available for the project, work performed and invoices provided by the town just don't add up.

Questions about this project abound. Will the $178,000 in federal and state grants merely become water over the dam? Answers from the town of Auburn are needed.

Joan L. Crowell of Worcester is president of the Leesville Pond Watershed and Neighborhood Association.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Nov 14, 2007
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