Scant funding, scant dam oversight

hduncan@macon.comFebruary 17, 2013 

Huge backlogs and inconsistent enforcement of Georgia’s dam regulations are linked to the small staff and budget that Georgia provides its Safe Dams Program.

Five employee positions were eliminated from the program in the last five years, program manager Tom Woosley said. Meanwhile, the number of dams across the state climbs by about 50 a year. Repeated droughts over the last decade have led state policymakers to push for more water supply reservoirs or the expansion of existing ones.

Each of Georgia’s Safe Dams employees handles about 540 dams, based on information the state provides to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. Of the states that provide information on their programs, only five have higher caseloads.

The budget of Georgia’s Safe Dams Program dropped from about $760,000 in 2009 and 2010 to about $620,000 in 2011. Woosley said the budget remained the same last year.

The limited scope of Georgia’s dam regulations recently caused federal support to drop. In recent years, Woosley said, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reduced funding that covered several salaries because FEMA basically decided that dams that aren’t inspected -- as the majority in Georgia are not -- aren’t regulated.

Mark Ogden, a project manager with the Lexington, Ky.-based Association of State Dam Safety Officials, said, “I feel for those guys in that state office, because they just don’t have the support or the budget from their policymakers in that state.” But the problem is common in many other states, he said: “They just don’t have enough.”

A Center for American Progress report released last fall, called “Ensuring public safety by investing in our nation’s critical dams and levees,” reached similar conclusions. It found that total state spending on dam safety had dropped $15.3 billion nationwide between 2008 and 2011.

“This lack of financial support has resulted in state dam authorities regularly failing to keep up with required inspections,” the report stated.

For example, in 2009, 30 percent of high-hazard dams nationwide hadn’t even been inspected in the previous five years.

The report’s authors called for congressional funding reauthorization for the National Dam Safety Program, which expired in 2011 and helped states inspect and repair their dams. It also called for an annual increase of at least $1 billion in federal spending on dams and levees.

The report cited a 2009 estimate by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials that it would cost about $51 billion over 12 years to fix the nation’s non-federal dams. The cost of repairing only high-hazard dams would total about $16 billion, the group estimated. (Woosley and the association say estimates are somewhat subjective, since there are multiple ways dam weaknesses can be addressed, all with different costs.)

Georgia’s struggle to keep up with its workload may be partly because the state asks little of dam owners, Ogden said. Many other states require owners to hire certified engineers to conduct inspections and report the results, rather than leaving all inspections to state employees.

Georgia is now experimenting with this process by requiring owners to conduct inspections every other year. Although that began in 2012, only about 30 percent of dam owners statewide seem to have complied.

“I don’t think any did in Middle Georgia,” Woosley said.

He said his program has not decided what to do if owners do not have their dams inspected.

“I guess we’ll have to discuss that with the (state Environmental Protection Division) director’s office and the attorney general’s office,” which could file lawsuits to force compliance.

The state is beginning its 2013 inspections of Middle Georgia dams and may find more owners that did as they were asked.

Gary McCoy, director of water for the Macon Water Authority, said the authority did hire an outside engineer to inspect the dam at Javors Lucas Reservoir in Jones County, making the improvement recommended.

Jim Horne is quartermaster at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 658 on Harrison Road, which owns a high-hazard dam there. He said he inspected the dam himself last year.

“I didn’t hire no engineer,” he said. “It hadn’t changed none. Of course, I don’t really know what I’m looking at.”

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