HARVARD — Emergency efforts to prevent water from breaching the earthen dam near Willow Road kicked into gear late Monday night, a half-day before the worst of this week’s rain hit Harvard. Ten Department of Public Works staff members and eight Harvard Fire Department crewmen manned shovels and worked to fill some 1,100 sandbags overnight on March 29.
On Tuesday morning the bags sat ready, waiting to be deployed against flooding caused by the threatened rainfall. On that day, the 330-acre Bare Hill Pond, a so-called “great pond” because it exceeds 10 acres in size, was 18 inches higher than is seasonally normal.
Though the day started with three-quarters of an inch of rain, the rain bands hit hard in the afternoon and the hustle began. Department of Public Works dump trucks and front end-loaders were deployed to move the bags to the dam on the northern-most end of Bare Hill Pond, where the dam is located.
DPW superintendent Richard Nota was credited with the forethought. Nota noticed that the spring rains that fell mid-March were bad enough, causing the water levels in Bare Hill Pond to flirt within four inches of topping the dam. When last weekend’s forecast threatened 4 to 6 more inches of rain atop the super-saturated earth, Nota knew quick action was needed to save the dam.
It was not just the earthen dam that was at risk. If water were permitted to top the dam, quick erosion could have occurred, washing material down into a sensitive wetlands area. After overtaking the barrier, rushing water could have flooded the culverts under Route 110, also known Still River Road and washed out of the main artery through town.
At 1 p.m. Tuesday, Nota, in concert with Fire Chief Robert Mignard, agreed the time had come to put the sandbags in place as the wind-driven rain increased in intensity. The bags were placed around hazard zones, like the over spillway and the wings of the concrete culvert at the peak of the dam to prevent damage and loss of the structure.
“We knew at that point that we need three times as many to do the entire damn,” Nota said.
Mignard, who doubles as the town’s emergency situation coordinator, also called the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency at that time looking for support. And that’s when the National Guard was deployed.
And so they came, loaded with 2,500 more sandbags from the guard’s sandbagging operations out of Lexington. They worked in shifts: the first team of 20 guardsmen worked from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., having traveled from Fall River where they were previously addressing another emergency issue. The second crew of 20 covered from 9 p.m. to midnight. The soldiers managed to bag-off the entire length of the top of the dam.
At one point the top of the dam did start to wash away slightly, Nota said, but materials from the DPW yard were brought in quickly to stabilize the earth alongside the sandbags.
“We were very pleased that they were able to respond to our call,” Nota said.
Nota said after collaborating with town officials, the bags will remain in place until June.
“Based on ground water tables, the saturation of the earth and the fact that we’ve still got ‘April showers’ still to face. I’d hate to take them out and find out we’ve got another six inches of rain coming,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure the ground water table has receded and the coast is clear.”
Jeff Ritter, Vice Chair of the Bare Hill Pond Committee, heaped praise on Nota.
“Rich Nota should get an ‘Atta Boy.’ Rich was smart enough to see (the risk to the dam) a day ahead of time,” said Ritter.
As to accolades for he and his crew received for spending more than a full day out in the cold, driving rain, Nota was modest.
“We were called upon to go up and above and that’s what we do. We did our job,” he said.
They’re not heroes, he said, tipping his hat to the guardsmen, “Heroes are the guys over in Afghanistan.”