Published DateLACONIA — "The best dam man in New Hampshire," crowed longtime friend Dave Gilbert as family, friends and colleagues gathered at the home of Lisa Landry near the Lakeport Dam on Friday to celebrate the coming retirement of Bob Fay, who operated the dams throughout the Winnipesaukee River and Pemigewasset River watersheds for 74 days short of 36 years.
"He's made us all look good," said Jim Gallagher, chief engineer of the Dam Bureau, who presented Fay with a proclamation from Governor Maggie Hassan and a plague from his workmates. The governor lauded Fay for his stewardship of what are among the most important natural resources and valuable economic assets in the state. Commemorating Fay's years of service, the plaque features an early photograph of the original Lakeport Dam, which prompted one wag to exclaim "Bob took that picture."
During his tenure Fay's made his home and office at the corner of Elm Street and Fore Street overlooking the Lakeport Dam in the quarters that housed offices of the Winnepissiogee Lake Cotton and Woolen Manufacturing Company. During the 19th century, the company controlled both watersheds, managing lake levels and stream flows to turn the countless spindles and bobbins of the mills that lined the 134 miles of the Merrimack Valley to spawn the industrial transformation of New England.
"I live where I work and I work where I live," Fay once remarked. "The Lake Company controlled the lakes with an iron hand," he said, explaining that as water was stored to power the mills hayfields and pastures were flooded, sparking conflicts with farmers, and when the lakes were drawn down navigation was hindered, angering lumbermen rafting timber and shippers transporting goods.
The two watersheds include New Hampshire's four largest lakes — Winnipesaukee, Squam, Winnisquam and Newfound — which together serve as the headwaters of the Merrimack River. Stretching over some 60,400 acres, the lakes represent half the surface water of the entire Merrimack Valley.
"Winnipesaukee is still a big reservoir," Fay said, "but, today the challenge is reconciling the special interests." Lake levels and stream flows, he explained, are managed to accommodate boating enthusiasts, whitewater kayakers, hydro-electric generators, spawning fish, marine contractors, marina operators and shorefront landowners — always, Fay stressed, with an eye to Mother Nature. "All the special interests in the world can't change Mother Nature," he said.
The levels of the lakes, especially Winnipesaukee which dominates its watershed, are managed within operating ranges based on historical data measuring rainfall and inflow day-by-day. "We try to stay on the curve and with average precipitation, we're all right," said Fay. For example, spring flows are managed to bring Lake Winnipesaukee to "full reservoir" — 504.32 feet above sea level — by June 1. As the boating season wanes, the level is allowed to fall a foot or more to limit ice damage to shorefront properties and to capture the melting of the winter snowpack and the coming of the spring rains, which together return the lake to full.
In the meantime, downstream flows are managed between 250 cubic feet per second (cfs), or 7.5 gallons, and 1,100 cfs at the Lakeport Dam to optimize the generating potential of hydroelectric operations at the Lakeport, Avery and Lochmere dams.
Much of the time, managing the water requires a series of incremental adjustments, but sudden changes of weather may require much more. Then, Fay said "somebody's going to get a bellyache. We don't want to hurt anybody, but we have to manage the water."
Fay recalled that in the autumn of 2005, when heavy rains raised Lake Winnipesaukee to a record level — nearly a foot above full and more than two feet above its average seasonal level — discharges at the Lakeport Dam reached 2,500 cfs for several weeks, flooding shoreline properties downstream, particularly at Silver Lake.
By the following spring, lakeside homeowners, marina operators, marine contractors and boating enthusiasts, concerned by the low level of the lake, convened a meeting with officials of the Dam Bureau, who some charged had drawn the lake too low. "Mother Nature is Mother Nature," Fay remarked at the time, noting that "we're seeing the effects of an extremely wet fall and an extremely dry spring" and suggesting that those concerned by the low level of the lake "can pray for rain." Two weeks later, when torrential rains raised the lake more than a foot over a weekend, Fay asked "weren't we smart to take the lake down to where we did in anticipation of this storm?"
Fay kept a close eye on Mother Nature, day-in and day-out. Rising at 5:30 every morning, he began by checking the weather data then went to his gauging station on the weir above the Lakeport Dam, where he measured the overnight precipitation, melting any snow on a hot plate, as well as the lake level, water temperature and stream flow. At 7:30 a.m., once he has collected the data, Fay, announcing himself as the "dam man," recorded a message describing conditions throughout the watershed. The recorded message spared him from fielding calls, which in the past could run to as many as 350 a month.
At 8 a.m. Fay conveyed his information and offered his advice to the operating engineer and by 8:30 began adjusting discharges at the Lakeport, Avery and Lochmere dams. In addition, every two weeks during the winter Fay measures the depth and water content of the snowpack at seven sites around Lake Winnipesaukee in order to estimate the run-off come spring.
"There is always water going over the dam," said Steve Doyon, one of four operating engineers he said Fay had "trained or tolerated. We spoke every weekday morning at 8 a.m. and sometimes three or four times day," he recalled. "And Bob worked weekends too. He lived it." He said that while he had the tools for his job, Fay's "wealth of knowledge and experience showed me how to use them."
Peter Ames, a veteran dam operator who is among those aspiring to succeed Fay, said the two have spent every morning together for the past two months as he tries to grasp a share of more than three decades of accumulated wisdom. "He told me just knock on my door or call any time," Ames said.
Although Fay hails from upper New York state, his roots in New England reach to 1656 when eight year old John Fay arrived at Boston aboard the "Speedwell," the ill-fated sister ship to the Mayflower. He has spent most of his life on and around the water. "I started working on boats and outboard motors when I was 12 or 13," he said. As a high school student in Connecticut, he worked the second shift at Electric Boat in Groton. "I began as a tin knocker," he recalled, "and worked on the Nautilus and the George Washington. One of my school mates was the daughter of the skipper of the Nautilus when it went under the North Pole."
Fay was working on boats in Laconia in September 1977 when he spotted a little advertisement in The Evening Citizen for a dam operator to replace Bill Marshall, who was retiring after 30 years on the job. "I moved from one end of Fore Street to the other," he said.
As for his retirement, Fay said only that he will be spending more time with his son Bobby and daughter Leeann and especially granddaughter Meredith and grandson Dawson, while conceding "there's always a boat in it somewhere."
Yesterday, on the eve of Fay's retirement, the water in Lake Winnipesaukee stood at 504.32 inches, exactly "full reservoir."
CAPTION: Standing on the footbridge overlooking the Lakeport Dam, which he operated for almost 36 years, Bob Fay (left) accepts a proclamation from Governor Maggie Hassan and plaque from his colleagues in the Dam Bureau from Jim Gallagher, chief engineer of the bureau. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Michael Kitch)