Norwalk DPW repairs surprise dam

The Rowayton pond, next to Rowayton Elementary School. In the distance is a dam.

NORWALK, Conn. – A few years ago, Norwalk discovered that it owned a dam.

“We didn’t know,” Department of Public Works (DPW) Principal Engineer Lisa Burns said recently, explaining that the dam thing needed work, which is now done.

In the process, Common Council Public Works Committee Chairman John Igneri (D-District E) made a series of discoveries ranging from the resourcefulness of some neighborhood children to the helpfulness of his dog. He also confirmed the existence of a number of heretofore unknown Rowayton residents, including two types of fish, some snapping turtles and a family of muskrats. All are doing well.

Part of the work done around Rowayton Pond.

Perhaps best of all, the surrounding property owners have been spared the need to get flood insurance, which would have been necessary had the city gone the let’s-pretend-this-didn’t-hit-our-radar-screen route.

The dam, next to Rowayton Elementary School and bordering McKinley Street, came to Norwalk’s attention a few years ago, Burns said.  “And we said, ‘Gee, when was the last time we inspected that dam? It’s been a while.’ We did an inspection and out of that inspection, came ‘we have some repairs to do,’ because it actually was like a forest.”

It turns out you can’t have trees on a dam.

What you do have are bypass valves, with a vertical wall inside called a gate, Norwalk Chief of Operations and Public Works Anthony Robert Carr explained. You lift the gate to allow water out but if there’s a little silt or debris down there, it won’t reseat correctly and you end up with a leak.

No one had ever “exercised” the valve on the Rowayton dam which, to the best of Norwalk’s knowledge, was built in the 1980s to create a pond, Burns said.

“When we exercised the valve, of course it didn’t seat itself back properly,” she said, adding, after that, “it was kind of a slow drip.”

The city considered draining the pond to fix the problem, but the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) objected, Burns said.

Actually, it was the state that told Norwalk it had a dam, Igneri said. As part of the process of removing a dam upriver, an engineering firm was hired to look for possible impacts and there it was. The state said it was Norwalk’s responsibility to maintain it, according to state standards.

“We were talking about not doing the repair, then if we didn’t do the repair, all the homes around that pond would have to get inland water flood insurance, because the dam them had the possibility of overflowing into these homes,” said  Igneri.

“Then we thought about opening the valve, letting the water out, fixing it, and then letting the water build up again,” Igneri added. “We got this letter saying that we had to check all the different types of fish in the pond.”

Rowayton residents are brainstorming about how to beautify the dam, now that all the trees have been removed, John Igneri said.

DEEP also wanted Norwalk to put screening over the valve so that the hypothesized Rowayton fish wouldn’t be able to escape, and screening downstream in case any did anyway, so they could be brought back from the brackish water and returned to the freshwater where they belonged, Igneri said.

“Save the fish,” Burns said, adding that DEEP wanted a pool off to the side to put the fish in.

“Lisa was going to me, ‘There are probably no fish in that pond. We should just empty the thing out,’” Igneri said. “So I went out with the dog walking one day right after school and I found all the kids fishing there. One child in particular was an expert at it. So I’m talking to him and he said there are lots of bluegills in the pond and a couple of largemouth bass.”

Norwalk hired a diver who plugged the pipe in April so that DPW could repair the valve, Burns said.

The valve and the trees were only part of the issue. The rubble stone spillway was cracked and water was flowing around it, creating a channel and undermining the dam’s structure, Burns said.

“Our Public Works staff went out and did all the masonry repair and rebuilt the spillway wall,” she said. “We also removed all the trees on the dam and performed some channel restoration with some rip raff, redid the footpath across the top of the dam.”

The work was done by DPW, except for getting the permits from DEEP “and a little bit of the plan that needed to be prepared, because we’re not dam experts in our department,” she said.

Tighe & Bond developed the plans. According to Norwalk Communications Manager Joshua Morgan, the city spent $22,000 on the design and permitting, and $10,000 on the diver, the valve replacement, materials and the construction.

“This is really good work from primarily in-house engineering staff and also the DPW maintenance workers. Everyone had a lot of skills,” Burns said.

“So, saved the city a lot of money, not having it do this out of house.”

The dam was originally built to create a pond, according to Burns.

“Actually, it turns out to be something interesting, I investigated something I walk by every day,” Igneri said. “I never knew that there were different types of fish in there. And to the kid’s credit, he started throwing a magnet out on a long piece of cord. He was bringing it back slowly and he was collecting all lost fishhooks, can tops, any metal that was thrown in there. and the kids were cleaning out the pond. You know as an activity, after school.”

Igneri said he did some more research and found a snapping turtle family.

“You should see the big guys,” Igneri said. “And then I found a muskrat family.”

“You did? Or your dog?” Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) asked.

“The dog pointed to muskrat school,” Igneri admitted. “…Now you know the life of a Councilman. And the Councilman’s dog.”

Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) suggested this has the makings of a children’s book: “Rowayton Pond by John Igneri.”

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