Despite more than a decade of planning and negotiation, improvements to Lakeside Dam and the simultaneous widening of Jeffersonville Road are still years away.
The lake, a popular courting spot and concert venue for decades, could kill people in the Avalon Mobile Home Community across the street if the dam failed, the state has concluded. Interviews revealed that few residents in the 50-trailer park even know the lake is above them, much less that they might be at risk.
Since the 1990s, the states Safe Dams Program has declared the lakes dam to be in poor condition.
Annual inspections have consistently found slopes that are too steep and covered with trees and brush, holes on the upstream slope, seepage, deteriorating spillway pipes and large cracks in parts of the dam. The urgency is greater because of the heavy loads that frequently cross the dam on the busy railroad line, state records indicate.
The state has repeatedly asked the railroad to maintain the dam, but inspection notes say only the railroad tracks themselves are ever maintained.
Hugh Ryder, a structural engineer for Norfolk Southern, said the slopes are too steep to allow easy maintenance. He also argues that the trees growing on the slopes -- now considered a threat to the integrity of the dam under state regulations -- have helped hold the slopes in place with no problems for more than 170 years.
Georgias efforts to inspect and regulate the dam at all were hindered by ownership disputes for almost 20 years.
When Lakeside Dam was built in east Bibb County in the 1840s for a mill by Eleazor McCall, the Central of Georgia Railroad, a Norfolk Southern predecessor, built its rail line across the top.
Norfolk Southern claimed the dam belonged to the lakes owner, currently the Gospel Gang camp. An administrative law judge ruled differently in 2000 based on deeds and agreements that date to the 1840s and 1860s.
Norfolk Southern then said if it were forced to repair the dam, it would instead drain the lake and remove the dam. But Bibb County leaders wanted to preserve the lake.
Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Terpay said the state, the Macon-Bibb County Road Program, the Gospel Gang and the railroad agreed to piggyback dam improvements on the widening of Jeffersonville Road, which has been planned for more than a dozen years. Norfolk Southern is paying for current design work on the dam, and the Georgia Department of Transportation is paying for the rest, Terpay said.
About 1,600 feet of track will be moved 50 feet south, allowing the dam to be widened in stages without interrupting rail operations.
Originally, Safe Dams officials wanted the dam improvements finished by 2004, according to correspondence in state files.
But Van Etheridge, manager of the road program, said the work is now scheduled for 2016. That portion of the Jeffersonville Road project is expected to cost roughly $7.5 million, he said, with the dam costs adding an additional $10 million or so.
Tom Woosley, manager of the state Safe Dams Program, said the dams emergency spillway is -- and will remain -- Jeffersonville Road itself. That means the road could be covered in deep water if the lake overfills. New signs to warn drivers will be added when Jeffersonville Road is widened.
When the work is done, ownership of the dam will shift to the lake owners, Ryder said.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.