Three dams in Georgia, three in Kentucky, and 31 in Texas are among 150 USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) watershed dams in 26 states that are included in new funding for rehabilitation to better protect public safety and water infrastructure.
The money for the dams in Georgia and Kentucky will be used for the planning phase. In Texas the money is earmarked for planning for some of the dams, and for design or construction for others where planning was completed in previous years.
NRCS says the $262 million allocated as part of the new Farm Bill represents 21 times the typical investment for this type of dam rehabilitation. That shows how poorly this essential work to maintain flood management, water supplies, and agricultural needs has been funded in the past. It’s also an indication of concern about the age and condition of many of these watershed dams.
From the 1940s through the 1970s, local communities using NRCS assistance constructed more than 11,800 dams in 47 states. These dams typically have a design lifetime of 50 years. Thousands of them are well beyond that age now, and many now have development of homes, businesses and lifeline infrastructure like highways and power lines below them.
So often it is the case that what started out in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s as perhaps a rather remote dam for flood control and irrigation is now a High-Hazard Potential (HHP) dam and needs to have safety improvements to protect those living, working and pursuing recreation within the inundation zone of the dam.
Many of these dams also need Emergency Action Plans, which are required of dam owners and sponsor organizations because of USDA financial assistance building the dams. Not all of the dams have EAPs, and those that do may not have updated them in decades, much less tested them with exercises and drills. It is troubling that in some states the dam safety regulators responsible for inspections and EAP compliance have said they do not have copies of EAPs that exist for NRCS watershed dams.
The program includes provision for 500 dam sites to be assessed for safety. The results of that could be a real eye-opener.
Here are a couple of links for more information. One is the Watershed Rehabilitation webpage. And for a complete list of the projects, visit the NRCS FY 2014 Watershed Rehabilitation Projects Funding Table page. NRCS says the projects were chosen based on recent rehabilitation investments and the potential risks to life and property if a dam failure occurred. A 21-times increase in financial support for work on watershed dams sounds great, but it also may amount to sticking a straw in the hole in the bucket.