Dam safety questioned

The nation's dams are in poor condition and need more attention, experts say.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BALTIMORE | February 28, 2005

"Awareness is very important."

—Steve Sellers

The nation's dams are in poor condition and need more attention, experts say.

That is the sentiment from a number of public and private agencies working in what they call a critical area of the nation's infrastructure.

Responding to recent investigations by a newspaper and television station, public officials in Indiana are not denying that their state's dams are in sad shape and present a hazard to the public.

The investigative report stated that half of Indiana's state-owned dams are in need of significant repairs and some lack alert systems to notify nearby residents in case of a dam breach.

"Overall, looking at the investigative report, most of what we saw is accurate," said Steve Sellers, spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). The report stated that of the 234 high-hazard dams under IDNR's jurisdiction, a third are past due for required two-year inspections.

The term 'high-hazard,' according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO), does not address the condition of the dam but rather indicates potential loss of life and property damage if a dam is breached.

Sellers said his department worked closely with the media outlets on the report and said he hopes the attention helps bring funding and public awareness to an issue that badly needs it.

"Awareness is very important. It is something that policymakers need to see more of. This is really an aging part of the infrastructure in the country. I'm sure we are not too different from other states."

He is correct in that statement according to the American Society of Civil Engineers' (ASCE) 2003 Infrastructure Progress Report. The report states that across the country, the number of unsafe dams has risen by 23% to nearly 2,600 since the organization's 2001 Infrastructure Report Card.

Dam safety advocates say that increase is something the public should be more aware of.

"It seems like dams are invisible things. The public doesn't care until something happens," said Sarah Mayfield, information specialist for the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO).

"The picture (of the country's dams) is not real good, and this has been going on for years. In some places it's just getting worse."

Many public and private officials point to inadequate funding as the one of the main causes of the lapse in dam regulations. "It's a real issue," said Sellers. "There have been proposals to start a national trust fund to help private owners make repairs, but it hasn't gone anywhere."

Sellers also noted that public awareness directly relates to the funding problems. According to the ASCE's 2003 report, the rehabilitation cost for Indiana's most critical dams is estimated at $199.2 million.

"There hasn't been a lot of funding for dam inspections in the past, so I think it's important to raise awareness," he explained.

Mayfield agreed and said there is a definite role the public can play in helping increase dam safety around the U.S. "Question your legislators and ask them where money can be found.

"Some of the dams are just getting too old for repairs only. Funds are not increasing as they should be," she added, noting that the dams in worst shape need drastic help.

For the federal side, the 2003 ASCE report states that, "the federally-owned dams are in good condition; however, continuing budget restrictions are placing pressure on and limiting many agency dam safety programs."

The report also takes issue with funding legislation that has already been enacted. According to the report, "Despite the recent passage of the National Dam Safety and Security Act of 2002 (HR 4727), which provides funding through grants to improve state dam safety programs, it is estimated that $10.1 billion is needed over the next 12 years to address all critical non-federal dams - dams that pose a direct risk to human life should they fail. In the meantime, the 78,000 dams in the U.S. National Inventory of Dams continue to age and deteriorate."

Last March, the Big Bay Lake Dam in Purvis, Miss., broke. The ensuing wave of 3.5 billion gallons of water destroyed more than 40 homes and severely damaged another 20.

That dam is privately owned, and according to one state official, the owner says the cause of the break was "under-seepage through the foundation materials."

Residents downstream are suing both the dam owner and the state for damages.

"The state has not yet made a comment on the cause (of the break) due to the litigation," said Gaylan McGregor, director of dam safety for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.

At least in Mississippi, new regulations are requiring better dam inspections, he said.

"In June we issued new regulations that required high-hazard dam owners to hire a professional engineer to inspect the dams. We at least want them to give us a good baseline exam of the dams - and now the owners are scrambling," he explained.

"A lot of education needs to be done. We've tried to go out and educate dam owners but always got little participation."

The recent attention helps, he added, agreeing that the issue is something that needs more publicity. "There are 3,300 public and private dams in the state. Of them 300 are high-hazard and another 85 to 90 are significant-hazard. Last year, 10 others failed or had to be drained under control due to the risk."

Another major issue is increased development downstream from dams, McGregor said. He explained that often, developers transfer the rights of a lake and/or dam to the homeowners association of the completed community. "Then you have untrained people in charge of a dam."

For Sellers of the IDNR, the public has to be more aware of their surroundings and help keep tabs on dam safety as well. That attention can only help the situation across the nation.

"You need to know if you're at risk - know if you live downstream from a dam. Get involved on a state and federal level. Don't take anything for granted, but ask those questions. Make sure inspection reports are made available to the public."

The ASCE's 2005 Infrastructure Report Card will be unveiled on March 9, and McGregor, Sellers and Mayfield say they expect little good news about dam safety.

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Related Links:

American Society of Civil Engineers

ASCE 2005 infrastructure report card

Association of State Dam Safety Officials

FEMA National Dam Safety Program


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