Neglected dams are holding back trouble

hduncan@macon.comFebruary 17, 2013 

  • Middle Georgia dams in poor condition

    Below is a list of dams in Middle Georgia that the state says are in poor condition. Their deficiencies could create problems during “realistic loading conditions,” such as when the reservoir is normally filled and rainfall levels aren’t extreme. The state says these dams need to be fixed. There are no dams in Middle Georgia deemed “unsatisfactory,” which means their problems are so bad that they must be fixed immediately.
    VFW dam
    Lakeside dam
    Lake Wildwood dam
    Wolf Creek dam

    Lower 4-J Farms dam

    Lawson Lake dam

    Ferncrest dam
    Imrys 5C dam
    Lower Yarborough dam
    Walden Woods dam
  • A primer on dams

    Here are some common terms that describe parts of a dam or a dam’s condition:
    Breach: a break in a dam sometimes caused by rapid erosion.
    Erosion: the wearing away of surface soil by weather or flowing water.
    Face: the outside surface of one of the dam’s sides.
    Rills: deep cracks or small trenches created by running water over exposed dirt, a sign of significant erosion.
    Seepage: the slow movement of water through soil or rock, sometimes forming a pool at the surface. Eventually seepage can create channels under a dam and cause parts of it to collapse.
    Slough: movement of a mass of soil downward along a slope.
    Spillway: a structure that releases flow from a reservoir in a way that protects the structural integrity of a dam. Sometimes this is just a lower area where water can “spill” when the dam becomes full. Sometimes it’s a set of gates. Sometimes there are two spillways, with an “emergency” spillway to handle flow during extreme rainstorms and other unusual conditions.
    Spillway channel: a channel conveying water from the spillway downstream.
    Toe: the junction between the outside face of a dam and the land around it.

During Georgia’s recent droughts, its lakes have often seemed a peaceful oasis glistening in the sun. But torrential rains last week were a reminder that in most cases, only a pile of sodden dirt prevents a lake from becoming something much wilder: a very big wave.

Fortunately, a pile of dirt can be an effective dam, keeping folks downstream both dry and alive.

In Georgia, however, just a small percentage of dams are inspected. Rules governing dams are more limited than in other states, and existing rules sometimes go unenforced for as long as 30 years.

Hundreds of dams go unregulated as they await study -- sometimes for decades -- to determine if they might be able to kill people downstream.

The state’s Safe Dams Program, part of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, is understaffed and underfunded. Just seven people are responsible for overseeing more than 4,000 dams, including about 480 “high-hazard” dams deemed potential killers because people live or work downstream.

Only four other states have more dams than Georgia, and only five states have more high-hazard dams, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

Those high-hazard dams are not necessarily in poor shape, but a handful of the 30 or so in Middle Georgia are. Most of them have remained in that condition since Georgia began regulating dams 30 years ago, after 39 people were killed when a Toccoa dam crumbled. After that 1977 tragedy, then-President Jimmy Carter required the Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate dams nationwide.

But dam failures have since happened closer to home. Houston Lake dam in Houston County and Kraftsman dam in Crawford County both collapsed during Tropical Storm Alberto in 1994. Fortunately, no one died, although mobile homes below the Houston dam were badly damaged.

Houston Lake dam and Leisure Lake dam in Houston County, which also failed in 1994, had been (correctly) identified 14 years earlier as being too unstable. But the state did not force improvements.

Video courtesy Association of State Dam Safety Officials
When too much rain falls, water levels can rise beyond the ability of regular and emergency spillways to remove the water. In extreme flooding, water can rise over the edges of the dam, eroding it and causing a catastrophic release

And Safe Dams officials acknowledge that even more Georgia dams probably have the potential to kill nearby residents. As Georgia’s population has grown, the Safe Dams Program has identified about 500 dams -- including about 40 in Middle Georgia -- that need in-depth study to determine if they, too, have become high hazard.

“Historically, 60 percent of those become high hazard,” said Tom Woosley, the Safe Dams Program manager. “That means 300 of those are likely high hazard. ... People aren’t aware of it, and there’s been no effort to get (those dams) into compliance. So if there’s a big storm or something, those are the ones I’d be most concerned about.”

Even when the state knows downstream residents are at risk, the residents rarely do.

For example, the Avalon mobile home park across from Lakeside dam in Bibb County would likely be hit by a wave with the collapse of the dam, which has been in poor condition for decades. But most residents interviewed either didn’t know the dam was there at all, or thought the private lake was much smaller than it is. None knew it posed a threat to their neighborhood.

It is not uncommon for current residents living in the 30 homes directly on top of Leisure Lake dam to be unaware that the dam is under them, even though almost all the houses were waist-deep in water in 1994.

In 1993, one of the homeowners had chased state inspectors away with a gun, insisting her property was not on a dam, Woosley said.

All the homeowners on the dam moved away after 1994. Judy Reynolds has lived there six years without realizing her street is on a dam. But it doesn’t worry her.

“The ambiance kind of outweighs everything else,” said Reynolds, whose home is steps away from the sparkling water.

You don’t have to live on a dam to be affected by its failure.

An illustration is the dam at Lake Juliette. If it failed -- which is unlikely, given that the state considers it to be “very well-maintained” -- it could flood not only its Monroe County neighbors, but large sections of Interstate 75 and Macon. The flood could extend 43 miles downstream, according to an inundation map created by Georgia Power.

Limited oversight

Georgia law allows the state to inspect only high-hazard dams that are at least 25 feet tall or store at least 100 acre-feet of water.

As long as it’s smaller than that, a dam will be exempt from regulation even if its failure could kill someone downstream, Woosley said. His program has information on at least 100 of those in Georgia.

“Developers were notorious for knowing the rules and building dams just smaller than the regulations, even with a house or two downstream,” he said. “It could still pose a real threat.”

For example, Mossy Lake dam in Houston County is less than 25 feet tall, so it doesn’t receive annual inspections. But it is described in state files as having a bait shop and two cabins on top of its dam, and Safe Dams records indicate its concrete spillway had been torn out.

Other state files show Safe Dams officials recognized in the 1980s that one of the lakes in Bibb County’s Rivoli Lakes subdivision might be high hazard. At that time, the dam was owned by prominent local developer Charlie McGlamry, who also built the houses on Leisure Lake dam.

A letter from McGlamry’s engineering firm in 1988 suggested that McGlamry might build an elevated road across the middle of the lake to prevent the dam from being large enough for the state to regulate.

State regulators appeared not to have analyzed the dam’s damage potential. It was officially placed on the list to be studied in 1999, and it has remained there.

Even high-hazard dams face fewer requirements in Georgia than elsewhere. Georgia is among just 11 states that do not require owners of high-hazard dams to create emergency action plans, according to data on the Association of State Dam Safety Officials website.

Emergency action plans outline how to recognize when that specific dam is about to fail, whom to evacuate and which emergency responders to notify.

Just 5 percent of Georgia’s dams have these plans, compared with more than 60 percent nationally, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requires the plans for Georgia Power lakes such as Lake Juliette, the only one in Middle Georgia with an emergency action plan, Woosley said.

‘Significant hazard’

Unlike Georgia, most states regulate not only high-hazard dams but “significant-hazard” and “low-hazard” dams. Dams are considered a significant hazard if their failure would likely destroy property or infrastructure, such as roads.

The model dam safety program created by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials recommends inspecting significant-hazard dams every two years and low-hazard dams every five years.

Flat Creek dam in Houston County would be considered a significant-hazard dam in states that use the classification. State and county officials are certain its failure wouldn’t kill anyone, because it has already failed three times in the last 20 years, according to Robbie Dunbar, Houston County’s operations director.

But it has washed out nearby Toomer Road. Most recently, in 2005, the entire lake emptied out in a heavy rain, covering the dirt road in about 2 feet of water. According to state records, the Georgia Department of Transportation had to monitor downstream roads such as Interstate 75, and Emergency Management Agency officials tried (and failed) to get a neighbor downstream to evacuate.

The repeated failures contributed to the county’s needing to raise a bridge the next year.

Dunbar said it might be a good idea for the state to require inspections for all dams, if only so local emergency responders are better prepared.

“But it would be a monumental task,” he acknowledged.

Flat Creek Lake owner Barney Smith said he raised the dam of the century-old former mill pond after receiving advice from the corps.

Dunbar said the owner also hired a contractor to build an emergency spillway, which has weathered hard rains since.

In Georgia, dams that meet the storage and height qualifications but aren’t high hazard are supposed to be visited every five years. These aren’t full inspections, just checks to see if new buildings downstream might have increased the dam’s potential deadliness.

But even these don’t always happen every five years.

For example, state files indicate that Wooden Lake dam in Houston County received its last such visit in 1991, even though “considerable” seepage and moderate to severe erosion were noted.

A long time between checks

When new development is found downstream, the dam is put on a list to be studied because it might be high hazard.

Once it’s on the list, it stops receiving even cursory drive-by visits.

Video courtesy Association of State Dam Safety Officials
Dams built in rural areas can begin to threaten homes and roads built later. Dam breaks can flood beyond the floodplain.

In practice, that has meant that once Safe Dams officials recognized a dam might have become capable of killing people, it got even less scrutiny.

It might not be checked in any way for a decade or more.

Woosley said that since he took over Safe Dams a few years ago, he has asked employees to resume the visits, but no Middle Georgia dams on the list appear to have received one.

In Bibb County, Dougherty Lake dam in Lizella has been on the list for 20 years. In Houston County, Bledsoe Lake dam and Lake Sylvan dam were listed in 1996.

Kraftsman Lake dam in Crawford County was initially a high-hazard dam because of a building on top of it that was destroyed when the dam breached in 1994. The state decided in 2007 that it needed to study whether Kraftsman is again a high hazard.

The coal ash pond at Plant Scherer in Monroe County has been waiting to be studied since 1985, longer than almost any other dam in the state.

It’s not the only Middle Georgia reservoir on the list whose failure could create a wave of industrial waste rather than just water. Five ponds in Wilkinson County that await study contain kaolin mining waste.

Mark Ogden, a program manager for the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, said that in most states, these classification studies are completed within a month or two.

Some states use global positioning data to estimate how many might die after a particular dam’s failure. But Georgia stops after it finds just one home or work space that would flood, Woosley said.

The state’s 500-dam backlog for these studies include dams in every county.

“With state (budget) cutbacks, I have one engineer working on them, so that list is growing instead of shrinking,” Woosley said.

Lori Spragens, the CEO of the Association of State Dam Safety Organizations, called the backlog significant.

“I don’t think too many other states have that kind of backlog,” she said. “Without hiring more people or trying to get consultants to help out, it’s going to be pretty difficult to catch up.”

Once a dam is identified as high hazard, Safe Dams employees are supposed to thoroughly evaluate its condition, identifying weaknesses.

But these evaluations are backlogged, too. Failures send consequences cascading downstream.

For instance, Lawson Lake dam in Monroe County and Wolf Creek dam in Bibb were labeled as high hazard in 2009 and 2007, respectively. Letters to each owner noted significant problems with the dams but added that “in light of our current workload, it may be several years” before the state conducts a full evaluation and makes recommendations for improvements. The letters recommended that owners go ahead and hire an engineer to do the evaluation, but noted that the law does not require it.

Lax enforcement

Until recently, high-hazard dams received state inspections once a year. If there are problems, the state sets a deadline for the owner to hire an engineer.

“Rarely do they do it,” Woosley said. “We then set one or two more sets of deadlines. Then we may have to do enforcement.”

Woosley said 20 to 25 percent of dams inspected in the last five years have needed significant improvements. “Normally it’s a three to five-year process to get repairs done,” he said.

Video courtesy Association of State Dam Safety Officials
Over time, without maintenance, safe dams can become dangerous.

But that time line seems optimistic in Middle Georgia. Although the state has the authority to order repairs -- and even to issue fines -- these powers are rarely used.

“We don’t pursue so many administrative orders because of manpower, and we just have to kind of set our priorities,” Woosley said.

“I told staff and consultants in 2012 this was going to be our year of enforcement. We did a lot more enforcement, but nowhere near what we should have.”

Lake Wildwood, the Veterans of Foreign Wars dam above Eisenhower Parkway, and Lakeside dam are all Bibb County high-hazard dams that were identified as being in poor condition basically when the state began regulating dams. (The corps’ original 1980 report on the Lake Wildwood dam, for instance, stated: “Due to seriously inadequate spillway capacity, the dam must be considered unsafe.”)

The Safe Dams Program has been asking for improvements ever since.

Often, owners drag their feet. At Lakeside, owner Norfolk Southern Railway denied ownership for more than a decade and had to be taken to court. At VFW and Wildwood, owners have conducted basic engineering studies over the years but haven’t been in a rush to pay for repairs.

And owners aren’t the only ones to blame. The delays are also partly the state’s fault.

For example, Woosley said the Lake Wildwood Neighborhood Association, which owns the dam, submitted design documents for improvements to the spillway years ago. But three different Safe Dams employees started to review them, then left their jobs.

“It’s our office that’s been dropping the ball,” Woosley acknowledged.

The Lake Wildwood spillway is heavily cracked and crosses a road that must be gated during heavy rains.

Craig Anderson, the current president of the neighborhood association, said he was unaware of any problems with the spillway.

“I have to tell you this is a total surprise to us,” he said of the association’s current board. “We’re working on the spillway as a road. I don’t think a single one of us is aware that the government has ascertained we need to improve it for people downstream.”

Similarly, the state has been exchanging mail with the VFW Post 658 for years. The Holiday Inn Express and the Cracker Barrel restaurant on Eisenhower Parkway sit downhill of the VFW dam’s 330 acre-feet of water.

If the dam failed, that water would rush into deep trenches and pipes leading under a web of roads that include Eisenhower. But such pipes can quickly become blocked by debris when a dam collapses, in essence creating their own dams.

Safe Dams files show letters sent to the VFW in 2010 and 2011 setting deadlines for engineering reports that were never produced. A VFW response indicated that the post couldn’t afford improvements their engineer recommended.

Safe Dams officials let it drop.

Video courtesy Association of State Dam Safety Officials
In dam slide failures, water seeps through the face of a dam, leading to a landslide that collapses the dam.

Woosley said seepage at the bottom of the VFW dam seems to be increasing, but sometimes it’s not visible at all.

“It’s just a lower priority compared to some of the other projects we see,” he said.

And like many dam owners, representatives of Lake Wildwood and the VFW aren’t sure improvements are needed.

“My gut feeling is that categorizing the (Lake Wildwood) dam as poor is alarmist,” Anderson said.

Jim Horne, quartermaster for the VFW post, was more blunt.

“The dam ain’t going nowhere,” he said. “This all started when that Toccoa dam failed, and they just jumped on it and passed laws like they’re trying to do with gun control.”

He said the post pays $3,000 for mowing and tree removal on the dam using bingo money, and it can’t afford the $50,000 to $100,000 that dam improvements might cost.

Gaps in the files

Some of the state’s dam safety files are incomplete, unclear or contradictory.

For example, its records indicate the program apparently first learned of the existence of Kersey Lake dam in Bibb County, thought to be more than 50 years old, in 2002 after its owner contacted Emergency Management Agency officials because she feared the dam was failing.

At the time, Woosley concluded that although the dam had some seepage and wasn’t maintained, it probably wasn’t a threat. As a precaution, the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office notified residents in trailers downstream to be ready to leave.

But even after this event, followed by a 2003 complaint from a neighbor about water from the dam seeping into her yard, Kersey Lake dam was not officially classified and added to the state database until 2005.

Woosley said data entered in the database about inspections, and even the addition of new dams, may be as much as 15 years out of date in some cases.

In other situations, Woosley said he isn’t sure why actions mentioned in the program’s files don’t appear to have been completed.

For example, Fowler Lake dam in Bibb County was initially classified as a high-hazard dam because a house straddled the stream just below it. Although state records indicate the dam was “supposedly” lowered to less than 25 feet, the change was never confirmed. Officially, Fowler Lake dam is not exempt.

Nonetheless, it has not been inspected since the late 1980s.

To contact reporter S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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