Texas Dam Safety Inspections at Issue

The www.damsafetyaction.org Texas news section includes mention of a Wall Street Journal article about an important issue that should worry many Texans. A little background: Texas updated and improved its dam safety regulations a few years ago to include a requirement for Emergency Action Plans for High-Hazard Potential (HHP) and Significant-Hazard Potential (SHP) dams, where failure would likely result in the death of people.

At least one politically well-connected dam owner got the legislature to promptly enact a few changes so that about 3,200 privately owned dams holding up to 500 acre feet of water (163 million gallons) were exempt from state regulation. A breach of any of at least 216 of those dams could cause major economic and environmental harm, along with death to one or more people.

This 30-foot-high Texas dam is now exempt from requirements from inspections and an Emergency Action Plan.
This 30-foot-high Texas dam is now exempt from requirements from inspections and an Emergency Action Plan.

While the legislature was giving all those dam owners a free pass on inspections and therefore any needed upgrades for public safety, Nature was giving Texas one of the worst droughts in 500 years. That’s a lot of drought, even for Texas. Now the reservoirs and the “stock ponds” (many of which would be considered big lakes in other states) are getting so low and dry that cracks are developing in some of the dams. When the rains return to normal for a while, which has begun in parts of the state, will the dams hold up? Nobody knows, and nobody is going to know because the dams won’t be inspected if legislative indifference prevails. If a dam fails and someone is killed, everybody will then know an inspection and repairs were needed.

As noted in the WSJ article, no other state has deregulated dams like Texas.

But it’s worse than that. The state government also doesn’t want its citizens to know if they live, work, attend a church, go to school or visit a hospital or nursing home within the inundation zone of a HHP dam. It’s a secret in Texas as to which dams are HHP, where they are, and whether they have an EAP. That makes it hard to know if you are at risk, much less whether you will be notified if the dam is failing. Maybe the local emergency management director will be kind enough to talk with you about it and make sure you’re on a notification list if there is a HHP dam putting you at risk.

You might be a school teacher or a soccer mom, or retired. Yours might be a big family, or you might live alone. But to the state of Texas, you’re the risk to the dam. It actually is far more likely to be the other way around, but you’re not entitled to know. Just trust that the system, whatever it may be, and the people responsible will work on behalf of your safety if a dam is failing.

The secrecy came about because of a post-9/11 Texas attorney general’s decision regarding the threat of terrorism and HHP dams. Other states and the Federal government are struggling with finding a balance between security and mitigation. How do communities, families and businesses take steps to mitigate the risk from dams if they are not allowed to know about a dam hazard and participate in the development of EAPs? What about in states that don’t require EAPs? A reasonable compromise would seem to be the approach several states have taken. They consider the hazard classification of a dam and basic information in an EAP (if there is one) to be important for the public to know, while withholding technical information about the dam that might reveal vulnerabilities.