Thirteen Georgia dams could be reclassified as high risk

Published 13 December 2010

The number of dams designated high risk under Georgia’s Safe Dams Act could more than double in two counties in the state, but a backlog in state enforcement because of budget cuts could drag the reclassification process out years longer than scheduled

The number of dams designated high risk under Georgia’s Safe Dams Act could more than double in Richmond and Columbia counties, but a backlog in state enforcement because of budget cuts could drag the reclassification process out years longer than scheduled.

The 1978 law, enacted after a dam failure in Toccoa killed thirty-nine people, requires state officials to inspect annually all Category I high-risk dams where loss of life could occur in the event of a failure; and to re-inspect lesser “Category II” dams at least every five years in case new development warrants redesignation to Category I.

The Augusta Chronicle reports that currently, there are six high-risk dams in Augusta and three in Columbia County, but at least thirteen additional Category II dams have been identified for reclassification studies, said Tom Woosley, the manager of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s Safe Dams Program.

Those thirteen dams are among about 520 statewide, and the list continues to grow. “The list is backlogged,” he said. “We can knock out maybe 30 to 40 a year, but in recent years we were adding more dams than we could get studied.”

The Safe Dams Program once had twelve employees but has shrunk to eight, making it difficult to reinspect all Category II dams every five years.

One of the Category I dams identified decades ago is at Woodbridge subdivision in Evans, where homeowners are under a state mandate requiring improvements that could cost up to $250,000.

The 33-acre lake, built in 1973, was modified after the Safe Dams Act was adopted.

There was a lot of work done to bring it up to the standards back then, but those standards changed over time, and now we are being forced to bring it up to newer standards,” said Joe Wheeler, the vice president of the Woodbridge homeowners association, which has spent $30,000 on engineering work and is awaiting state approval for construction plans.

Although a Category I designation is labeled high risk, it does not mean a dam is poorly built or improperly maintained, he said. Rather, it means the structure is held to standards designed to prevent the dam from getting into a condition where it could fail.

They’ve never come out and said our dam is in danger of breaching or anything like that,” he said. “But all the things they are requiring are safeguards against that.”

Although owners of Category I dams are working to comply with state rules and finance needed improvements, the delay in re-evaluating other dams could help their owners escape such scrutiny for years, Wheeler said.

We’re being held to overly onerous requirements, while others go by without even falling into their area of responsibility.”

The newspaper notes that one of the Category II dams awaiting reclassification studies is on a much larger lake just three miles away, at Windmill Plantation subdivision.

The dam’s Category II status, which exempts it from stricter rules, was adopted years ago, before development crept into the then-vacant land just across William Few Parkway from the base of the earthen structure.

Today, several homes are in that zone — in addition to the Greenbrier preschool and day care center, which — according to its Web site — opened in late 2005 and tends to about 200 children.

Woosley would not identify all 13 local dams awaiting possible reclassification but acknowledged Windmill as one of them because of the development in its downstream path.

That one is a Category II at least for today,” he said. “People are building things all the time, so it’s very common to find new hazards below an older dam.”

Although state officials are backlogged on inspections, local authorities also keep watch over dams and flood-prone areas, said Pam Tucker, Columbia County’s emergency operations director.

With all the state budget cuts, they’re having a harder time than they used to have, and they’ve always been understaffed,” she said. “The program doesn’t really get the attention it should.”