Dams that appear to be in questionable condition are becoming more of a safety concern as heavy rain events increase in intensity and frequency.
The Associated Press found that this appears to be especially true in North Carolina when it spent over two years investigating federal and state dam records nationwide. The AP identified 1,688 “high-hazard” dams rated in poor or unsatisfactory condition as 2018 in 44 states and Puerto Rico.
North Carolina ranked second among these 44 states and Puerto Rico in the number of high-hazard dams listed in poor or unsatisfactory condition, with 168. Georgia ranked first.
Dams are viewed as high-hazard based on the belief that their breach would cause loss of life and substantial economic damage. North Carolina further defines this as at least $200,000 in economic damage and the re-routing of more than 250 vehicles daily.
An intermediate-hazard dam is one that would result in between $30,000 and $200,000 of damage and rerouting of 25 to 250 vehicles per day if it failed.
The nationwide total of high-hazard dams is almost certainly larger than 1,688 because six states didn’t provide dam ratings, claiming exemption to public record requests. Others haven’t rated all their dams due to lack of funding, staffing or authority to do so.
Of about 3,000 dams on the N.C. Division of Environmental Quality inventory (DEQ) of regulated dams, about 50 are in Wilkes County.
Nearly 1,500 of these 3,000 or so dams statewide are designated “high-hazard” in a DEQ inventory. Of the nearly 1,500 high-hazard dams, 126 are in poor or unsatisfactory condition.
Al Beshears Dam in Parsonsville is the only high-hazard dam in Wilkes in poor or unsatisfactory condition. The AP reported that state dam safety inspectors who visited Al Beshears Dam in February concluded that its impoundment “needs to be drained immediately to prevent a possible failure of the dam.”
They reported that water was seeping on the dam’s downstream slope, indicating possible internal erosion that could lead to failure. Inspections since 2013 said the same.
Other high-hazard dams in Wilkes are W. Kerr Scott Dam, Big Warrior Creek Dam at the YMCA of Greater Charlotte’s Camp Harrison in Boomer, KOA Campground Dam off N.C. 16 North in Wilbar, Oliver Dam in Moravian Falls and Miller Dam in Ronda.
Of the state’s 590 intermediate-hazard dams, 26 are rated in poor condition.The inventory lists C.A. Robinson Dam in the Brushy Mountain community as an intermediate-hazard dam in poor condition. Upper Sidden Dam in Traphill also is an intermediate-hazard dam but is in fair condition.
A dam listed as “breached” means it has been intentionally dismantled.
The AP reported that 58 state-regulated dams in North Carolina and South Carolina failed as a result of extreme rainstorms over a 12-month period starting in October 2015.
North Carolina recently beefed up its oversight of dams by increasing its dam safety program budget by two-thirds. It has 20 full-time staff positions for a dam safety office that regulates more than 3,100 dams.
Under the N.C. Dam Safety Law, owners of dams designated high- or intermediate-hazard are required to file an emergency action plan (EAP) with the DEQ, but records show many don’t. High-hazard dams are also supposed to be inspected every two years, while intermediate- and low-hazard dams are on a five-year inspection cycle.
No national standards exist for inspecting dams so state regulations vary. The AP reported that some states inspect high-hazard dams every year, some are inspected every five years and some never. Dam conditions are supposed to be rated as unsatisfactory, poor, fair or satisfactory, but these ratings are subjective and also vary by state. The AP said dam conditions aren’t always publicly disclosed.
Some of dams in the state are owned by the government, but most are owned by corporations, individuals, trusts or homeowners’ associations.
The state inventory of regulated dams is at https://deq.nc.gov/about/divisions/energy-mineral-land-resources/energy-mineral-land-permits/dam-safety.