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Mowing the grass on Saville Dam


Town Diary - September 2003

Mowing the grass on Saville Dam

It is amazing how many cars cross the Saville Dam in Barkhamsted each day.  Route 318 is very busy even during the middle of the day, well after morning rush hour has come and gone.  It is pretty safe to say that most of the drivers, including those in a hurry, admire the beautiful scenery as they cross the dam:  the Barkhamsted Reservoir framed by mountains to the north and Lake McDonough to the south.  But on this day (Monday, September 22, 2003), one thing hidden from the view of the passing traffic is a large lawn tractor slowly traversing the face of the dam mowing a huge expanse of grass there.

Photo above- mowing the grass on Saville Dam.  This top section of the dam is the steepest portion and the most difficult to mow.

The Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) maintenance crew based at the building on Beach Rock Road is responsible for maintaining the area around the Saville Dam, including the mowing of the ten acres of grass on the face of the dam.  The grass on the dam is cut about once a month.  Today, MDC employee Chris Zern is starting at the bottom of the dam and working his way up.  There are three sections to the face of the dam, and Chris will mow the bottom two sections today and finish the top section later in the week.  It takes about a half day to mow the bottom two sections.

The mowing job is slow despite the 90-inch swath cut by the large diesel powered Power-Trac mower.  Each quarter mile run across the dam face takes almost 10 minutes to complete.  But what makes this job a challenge isn't just the large amount of real estate involved but the angle that has to be dealt with.  The face of the dam is steep.  The grade of the top section is about 40 degrees.  Dealing with angles this steep requires specialized mowers.  The Power-Trac mower is designed with a low center of gravity and dual wheels to increase stability.  Chris will use the Power-Trac on the bottom two sections, which are not quite as steep as the top section.  To mow the top section he uses a slightly smaller mower, the Kut-Kwik, which cuts a 72 inch swath.  Either mower is capable of cutting the top section but with nine years experience, Chris has found that the smaller mower works better there.

The large Power Trac mower can barely be seen at the center of this photo on Saville Dam.

Those gray specks above and to the right of the mower are Canada geese eating breakfast. 

Chris does most of the mowing on and around Saville Dam.  This mowing job in September will be the last one for the season.  The first mowing is done in May.  Actually, Saville Dam is just one of several dams that Chris mows.  The others include Goodwin Dam in Hartland (near the Colebrook town line), the Phelps Brook Dam on the Nepaug Reservoir in Burlington, the Reservoir Six dam in West Hartford and the dam at the West Hartford filters.  Mowing all these dams takes about two weeks including rain days.

With the new modern mowers, the work on the steep faces of the dams is made somewhat easier.  The MDC has had Kut-Kwik mowers since the mid 1980s and purchased the Power-Trac in 1998.  The Power-Trac has a variety of attachments that allow it to also spread fertilizer and remove snow with a snow blower.  In the "old days" before the mid 1980s, a gas-powered walk behind mower was used to mow Saville Dam.  The mower was not the best on the steepest part of the dam face.  The work on the steep top section was very difficult and involved two people.  One person operated the mower and another pulled on a rope attached to the mower to keep the machine from tumbling down the dam.  Before that a variety of different methods were used on the steep top section.  At one point the grass and brush there was allowed to grow and it would be periodically burned off.  Shrubs were also tried: the top section was planted with juniper so that mowing would not be necessary.  But State dam inspectors would not allow shrubs on the dam and they had to be removed. 

The Power Trac mower is diesel powered, has a low center of gravity and dual wheels for steep slopes.

MDC employee Chris Zern mows the Saville Dam in Barkhamsted and five other dams owned by the MDC.

Given the difficulty of mowing the dam during these years it is not surprising that the MDC employees came up with an innovative idea.  Why not try out some four-legged "mowers"?  During the 1970's an experiment was tried using goats belonging to an MDC employee.  A portion of the steep section of Saville Dam was fenced in and the goats were turned out to hopefully eat the grass and keep it in good order.  The test was not successful because the goats wouldn't fully cooperate.  They did eat some grass, but they tended to eat only the grass near the fence, while the grass in other areas in the pen grew tall.  The four-legged mowers were fired and the MDC returned to the gas-powered version.

The smaller Kut-Kwik mower is used on the top section of the Saville Dam.  In this photo the mower deck is actually off the ground for a short moment (due to the steep slope) as Chris prepares to back down and repeat another diagonal cut.

Mowing the top section of the Saville Dam with some nice scenery (Lake McDonough) in the background.

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Published Sep 21 2003, 05:36 PM by Paul
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