GAMEL-L ArchivesArchiver > GAMEL > 1998-11 > 0910121361
Subject: [GAMEL-L] Weldon Gamel
Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 14:29:21 EST
State, Federal Officials Lack Plan to Repair Unsafe Dams
Paul Scott Malone
A recently completed project to locate and inspect dams believed to be
potentially dangerous is causing state and federal officials to scratch their
collective heads now that it's time to repair the unsafe structures found in
And practically everyone involved in the federally funded dam inspection
project is looking for financial help from the state Legislature, accused by
one U.S. Army Corp of Engineers official of shirking its duty thus far.
The project also has caused a degree of dissension among federal and state
bureaucrats. An official of the federal Soil Conservation Service (SCS), which
designed and built nearly half of the state's private dams, said the criteria
used by the state Water Resources Board and the Corps to evaluate safety was
arbitrary and too severe.
Few dams are in imminent danger of failure, said Don Vandersypen of
Stillwater, SCS assistant conservationist for water resources in Oklahoma.
Despite the bickering, officials agreed that millions of dollars are needed to
fix inadequate or weak dams located in "high-hazard" areas of the state where
lives could be lost or property damaged in the event of a collapse.
More money is needed to improve the ability of the water board to inspect dams
and oversee repairs to those determined to be unsafe, they said.
"We're in desperate need," said Mike Mathis, assistant chief of the board's
engineering division. "High-hazard dams are just out there waiting to fail.
There may be some out there we haven't even found."
Of the 4,118 so-called private dams found in Oklahoma during the project,
which ended in October, 186 are in high-hazard locations and 71 were
discovered to have inadequate spillways or to be structurally unsound,
according to Corps records. Ten have been repaired by owners, state officials
said, adding, however, that 22 others are considered marginally unsound
although problems are not severe enough to necessitate prompt action.
Owners of the potentially dangerous dams include the state, municipalities,
rural water districts, farmers and other private citizens who are finding it
difficult to raise the money necessary for repairs, officials said.
The estimated cost to fix some of the dams is approaching $1 million, they
The Reagan administration has made it known there will be no federal funds to
help repair private dams, a Corps official said, despite the fact that many
were built with federal money by the Soil Conservation Service.
Nevertheless, 18 states have formally requested financial aid from the Corps.
Oklahoma is not among them.
"The state has not made a formal request basically because we know what the
answer would be "No,' " said Mathis.
Col. James Harmon of Tulsa, the Corps' district engineer for the region
including Oklahoma, agreed.
"The program is essentially over now," he said. "We're just in limbo now as
far as federal involvement. It's up to the states."
Harmon and other Corps officials said the idea behind the National Dam
Inspection Act, which provided $2.2 million to Oklahoma over the past three
years, was to help inventory and inspect dams, not pay for repairs.
Water board Director James Barnett agrees with that policy.
He said the state Senate will consider a bill next year that would create a
$200 million revolving fund, part of which could be used to make loans and
grants to public bodies which own unsafe dams. There are no plans to aid
private citizens in fixing their dams, he said.
"It's their problem to decide whether owning a lake is worth the cost of
maintaining it," Barnett said, adding that dams which are not made safe within
a "reasonable" amount of time will be ordered breached by the board.
"Our main concern is safety," he said.
If safety is the main concern, the state Legislature should act quickly to
help finance repairs and ensure the board has the money and staff to supervise
the repairs and continue the inspection program, said Weldon GAMEL, chief of
the Corps' engineering division in Tulsa.
"Now that the federal program has ended, (the Legislature) really hasn't
addressed it," he said. "The really difficult part is yet to come."
GAMEL said the board's six-person engineering staff needs to be increased to
at least 15 people to properly manage the task ahead.
"The program is inadequate without the federal money," Barnett conceded. "It
strained us for that federal money to end in October.
We've had to stretch our funds thin."
While some officials are trying to figure out how to keep the program alive,
others are saying it already may have gone too far.
The CSC's Vandersypen said criteria used to judge dams was too harsh to be
used for small, earthen dams.
The criteria developed by the Corps and used by the board stipulated that if
water could spill over the top of a dam during the "possible maximum flood" it
is unsafe because the so-called "over-topping" could cause erosion and
There is evidence indicating such an assumption is not necessarily true,
The CSC, which also has no money to finance repairs, built seven of the
structures considered unsafe by the Corps and board. Most are small dams now
owned by municipalities or rural water districts, he said.
"We think the criteria used might not be compatible for small structures.
There are questions," Vandersypen said. "It's all based on some assumptions
that may or may not be valid. There needs to be more research."
Meanwhile, as engineers debate finer details of determining safety, states
across the nation are grappling with what to do about fixing ones that are
According to Corps records, 2,926 of the nation's 8,613 private dams located
in high-hazard areas are unsafe because of inadequate spillway capacity,
seepage or other structural problems.
Missouri has the most, 455 of 607. Louisiana, with only eight structures in
high-hazard locations, has none deemed unsafe.
Compared to other states in this region, the percentage of unsafe dams in
Oklahoma is bested only by Arkansas, according to Corps records.
Thirty-eight percent of Oklahoma's high-hazard dams are considered unsafe. Of
124 high-hazard dams in Arkansas, 49 are listed as potentially dangerous, or
39.5 percent. The Water Resources Board has lately revised its list of high-
hazard locations to 156, which would increase Oklahoma's percentage of unsafe
structures to 45.5, well above any other state in this region.
Putting aside the discrepancy in state and federal records, Texas has 227 of
681, 33 percent; New Mexico, 28 of 105, 26.6 percent; Colorado, 37 of 218,
16.9 percent; and Kansas, 30 of 178, 16.8 percent, according to the Corps.
Texas ranks second in the nation in the number of unsafe dams, the Corps says.
Government engineers wonder how great the total number would have climbed had
it not been for the collapse of a private dam in Georgia four years ago which
sent a torrent of water smashing into a college campus, killing 39 people.
Then-President Jimmy Carter promptly ordered the Corps to inspect all high-
hazard private dams.
Over the course of the three-year, $93-million project, action was taken to
either lower the water level in lakes or breach dams at 131 of the most
dangerous sites in 26 states. Two dams in Oklahoma, one in Tulsa and the other
in Oklahoma County just east of the city, have been leveled and the reservoirs
Officials involved in the project, nonetheless, said they do not know how long
it will take to make all private dams in the country safe. Action has been
slow, they said.
"The federal project was really the first major program for dam safety in the
country," said Mathis of the water board. "We're really at kind of a loss
right now. We're saying, "Hey, how are we going to do it?' "
Added the Corps' GAMEL, "The real problem now is that we've identified the
problems, but nobody wants to do anything about it."
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