HAMILTON TOWNSHIP - Local officials are looking to make long-overdue repairs to the county's largest and oldest dam this summer, enabling the water levels to be more easily controlled.
Atlantic County and Hamilton Township, which jointly operate the Lake Lenape Dam, are also considering suing previous contractor Agate Construction Co. over the incomplete work, Hamilton township Solicitor Robert Sandman said.
"We're way over" expected costs, township Administrator Michael J. Jacobs said Wednesday. "We spent a lot of money we wouldn't have had to spend had this worked properly."
A joint county and township dam committee is expected to formally review an engineering report on the work and dam at its May 22 meeting. The committee has to review the dam report, by engineering consultants URS Corp., before deciding what to do, Sandman said.
When URS finished its recent safety inspection, state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Bob Considine said, it did not report any serious concerns to the DEP's Bureau of Dam Safety and Flood Control. He said the dam bureau also expects look over the report.
Lake Lenape, which backs up from the structure, is a centerpiece of the township, and township officials have long wanted the dam repairs made.
"The absolute priority is getting it repaired and getting it in working order and ensure the longevity of it and the protection of our town," Mayor Amy Gatto said.
Lake Lenape Dam is Atlantic County's oldest and largest dam, according to the records of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The 29-foot-high dam can hold 6,610 acre-feet of water, almost three times as much as the next largest, an Absecon dam operated by the Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority.
An acre-foot is 325,853 gallons, the amount of water that would cover one acre with one foot of water, or about the amount used by a suburban household in a year.
However, the Army Corps of Engineers lists the 1879 dam as a high-hazard, since it believes its failure would probably kill at least one person. It is the county's only high-hazard dam.
Its problem is three 3-to-4-foot pipes at the base of the dam that act as floodgates and allow water levels to be easily controlled, Jacobs said.
Over the years, he said, the dam pipes and their control mechanisms essentially wore out.
High water can still be mitigated, he said, but "it's extremely rough control." In an emergency, water can be diverted down a fish ladder or through the former powerhouse of the nearby former cotton mill.
Plans were announced in July 2010 to replace the pipes, and the Atlantic County freeholders agreed the following month to spend as much as $1.1 million for Agate Construction to repair them. The county and the township agreed to split the costs.
Agate Construction, of Dennis Township, planned to build a cofferdam, a small structure around the pipes that would keep the water away and enable crews to make repairs.
But when the final sheets were placed in March 2011, water undercut the structure.
This briefly led to concerns the dam itself could fail and forced Hamilton Township police to warn about 50 nearby residents of potential flooding.
The floodgates remained stuck open for months, and without the ability to easily control water levels, water fell so low that boating was suspended for several days in June 2011.
Agate Construction did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.
On Wednesday, the dam and lake looked the same as always, with brownish water placidly tumbling over the dam's edge adjacent to the ruined mill building.
Three people fished off of the nearby Mill Street Bridge, pulling in their catch with a variety of lures and bait.
"It looks fine. I've seen it all my life," said Mullica Township resident George Ramp, 66. A single perch flopped in his bucket.
"But it's hard to tell," he added. "You can't see what's underneath."
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