Dam Owners Caught in the Middle

Some dam owners might be identifying painfully well with a comment by Doug Bellomo, Director of FEMA’s Risk Analysis Division, on the importance of inundation maps and Emergency Action Plans when he spoke during the recent National Dam Safety Awareness Day.

He pointed out that inundation maps show how homes and businesses would be impacted if a dam fails.

“They are a critical component of a comprehensive Emergency Action Plan. Knowing when water will arrive, where it will arrive, and how much enables communities to develop plans for warning people, establishing evacuation routes, and improving emergency response operations,” he said. “Importantly though, it helps inform land use planners, flood recovery planners, who use this kind of information to ensure that we don’t make decisions today that can make the problem worse.”

A dam owner recently called the DamSafetyAction.org toll-free line to talk about his experience with a 65-year-old 35-acre lake he’s owned for 45 years and that used to be a 10-acre lake. He’s in his 80s, and like a lot of dam owners is confused by many aspects of his liability, his dam’s hazard classification, and inspections vs. EAPs. His lament is that for decades the dam was not a particular hazard to anyone, but then developers got busy above and below the lake.

He says a housing development went in upstream. Then the railroad improved the drainage under the tracks. Then the highway department improved the drainage under one of the state roads. All that funneled a lot more water down the watershed and into his lake. Then another developer put some housing in downstream. Two years ago he was notified by the state dam safety inspectors that his dam is now HHP and he must upgrade the spillway and perhaps other aspects of the dam. That will cost many thousands of dollars. Or, he can drain the lake, which also would involve a lot of cost because another governmental agency says he’ll first need an environmental study.

One wonders – had the state required an EAP and inundation map for that dam prior to all those developments, would some of the developers’ plans have been altered, disallowed or at least forced to include a share of the cost of the dam improvements? Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference in what happened. Regardless, now the dam owner is stuck with a difficult situation, litigation, some further complications about potentially draining the lake, and two years of stress and worry.

Of course, there likely is some worry among homeowners downstream, too, because their lives and property are at risk if that dam fails because the improvements were not made. And should that happen, the owner has been told that he likely will become one of the oldest felons in the state. These matters are made worse by the uncertainty caused because the state still does not require inundation maps or EAPs.

In past years, county and city governments, zoning boards, and developers moved ahead with development ignorant of (or indifferent about) the impact of runoff into watersheds, lakes and dams downstream and often out of sight. No doubt there is more attention to those issues these days, at least in some states. FEMA is emphasizing the importance and urgency of risk management at the local level, and it’s important, as Bellomo said, so that “decisions today do not make matters worse” for communities and residents, and one might add, for dam owners as well.