SC flooding highlights dam safety issues in NC
Posted October 11, 2015
Updated October 12, 2015
Vass, N.C. — In the more than 20 years he's lived in the flatlands of Moore County, Daniel Wood has seen his share of floods.
The 55-year-old Army veteran said he's carried his wife on his shoulders through rising waters and used a boat to access roads during some of the worst downpours.
"Every time there's a heavy rain, we think, 'OK, how high is it going to come, or is there going to be a devastating effect?'" Wood said.
Besides the risks of living in a flood plain, Wood's 1830s-era log cabin is just a few football fields away from one of the largest high-hazard dams in the state to earn a poor assessment from regulators.
Among the issues threatening the integrity of Woodlake Dam, state inspectors found cracks and "a void of unknown size" in the concrete spillway, as well as seepage along the dam's earthen slope – all potential threats to four properties downstream, including Wood's home on McGill Road outside Vass.
The dam's owner is working with the state to meet an Oct. 27 deadline to begin fixing the structure. But neither the extent of the damage nor the timetable for fixing things was ever communicated to nearby homeowners.
"It kind of floors me that things that could potentially, based on the chances of increased rain, have a devastating impact and yet no word from the proprietors or owners of it," Wood said. "That’s not right."
North Carolina has the second-highest number of high-hazard dams – those where loss of life is likely if the structure fails – nationwide, according to 2013 federal data. The state has almost six times the number of high-hazard dams than South Carolina, where more than a dozen dams failed during historic rainfalls and flooding last week that killed at least 17 people.
Of the about 1,200 high-hazard dams inspected by North Carolina officials, 153 are listed as either "poor" or "unsatisfactory," assessments that require some type of action to repair the dam, reassess its risks or reduce potential dangers to the public.
Those fixes can often take years. In many cases, data show, the dams are severely overdue for regular inspection required by law.
And when problems are detected, the public is not always notified.
For downstream homeowners, dams mean more risk
Perched between the vast expanse of Fort Bragg's military training grounds and the small town of Vass, Woodlake Dam holds back about 10,000 acre-feet of water when its reservoir is at its peak. Along the manmade lake's perimeter sit homes in the Woodlake Resort & Country Club.
The dam has been a problem for years. But after Woodlake CC Corp. purchased the property in early 2015, state regulators with the Department of Environmental Quality told the structure's new owners in July they had until the end of October to draw down the water and start work to repair or breach the dam permanently.
Failing to comply would mean penalties of $100 to $500 a day.
Wood said he mostly kept up with the status of the dam through local newspaper reports, but he was surprised to see his property listed among four others on the dam safety order state regulators issued the company on July 27 – a document he hadn't seen until WRAL News provided him with a copy.
Although he received the required disclosures about the area's position on a 100-year flood plain when he bought the 20-acre property, he said he had to seek out information on the dam on his own.
"One of the major complaints the neighbors around here had was that they never talked to us at all, not only about the status of the dam or when they were going to let major amounts of water out," Wood said. "So, there was no communication."
'Pretty much the rule of thumb is, if you're near a dam and you're below elevation, you should assume you have some risk if the dam fails. Better to be safe than sorry.'
Bridget Munger, DEQ spokeswoman
Although he said he doesn't expect the state to notify nearby homeowners, he said dam owners or county emergency officials should bear some responsibility to inform nearby residents.
But no such notification – either by state and local officials or dam owners – is required by North Carolina law, according to DEQ spokeswoman Bridget Munger.
Given that dam emergency action plans and inundation maps are now exempt from public disclosure, Munger said the best move for homeowners is to educate themselves about nearby dams and flood plains.
"Pretty much the rule of thumb is, if you're near a dam and you're below elevation, you should assume you have some risk if the dam fails," she said. "Better to be safe than sorry."
In a letter to state regulators dated Aug. 25, Woodlake CC Corp.'s attorney, Charles Raynal, wrote that the company was "focusing its immediate attention" on the safety order and was drawing down the water in the reservoir in anticipation of repairs.
Raynal said his client fully intends to cooperate with state regulators, with the hope of repairing the dam before next summer.
"Basically from the day they acquired the property, they've been working toward meeting the requirements," Raynal said Friday.
DEQ engineers have already approved those repair plans, and the company is working to secure a contractor ahead of construction.
"We had plans that were previously approved under the prior owner, and what they have basically done is adopted those repair plans that were already approved and agreed to implement those," Bill Denton, assistant state dam safety engineer, said. "We are just sort of monitoring the situation at this point and making sure they keep to a timetable that was agreed upon."
Despite dire rainfall predictions, Wood said he didn't see much flooding following last week's storms. He said that's likely because Woodlake had already begun drawing down the lake level behind the dam.
Although he's sure the dam will eventually be fixed because of the involvement of state regulators, he worries he and his neighbors are "sitting on borrowed time."
"Every time there’s a heavy rain, an extended period of rain, the anxiety level rises. When you go out the next day or in the midst of it, and you check the creek to see how high it is, you let [the anxiety level] down. But it’s the unknown factor of that," Wood said. "Now, it’s the unknown factor of whether the dam will give way."
Tracking high-hazard dams
Explore the 1,192 high-hazard dams state regulators monitor across North Carolina to find out how inspectors have assessed their conditions. Dams are classified as high-hazard if loss of life is likely if the structure fails.
Despite almost two weeks of sustained rainfall in some parts of North Carolina, Munger said the state saw no dam failures as a result of the storms.
But the risks are real.
Since the 1970s, six people have died in North Carolina, including a family of four in Buncombe County, as a result of dam failures, according to a report from the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
That makes the job of dam safety engineers like Denton critical.
Four staff members are dedicated exclusively to the state's Dam Safety Program within DEQ's Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources. But the agency has 58 workers in regional offices across the state trained to inspect the 2,663 dams they oversee.
For North Carolina's 1,192 high-hazard dams, the state's October dam inventory shows that hundreds are overdue for inspection. Toby Vinson, DEMLR's land quality section chief, said that number is probably inflated because the database hasn't been updated. Although state law requires the inspection of high-hazard dams every two years, he said his engineers aim to inspect them annually.
"Those that have not been inspected, they will be," Vinson said. "That's something we try to focus on."
Much of the catch-up work will take place over the fall and winter months, when visual inspection is easier because vegetation has died back and, Denton said, "snakes move a little slower."
"We are aware that we're behind on some inspections, and we're going to make a concerted effort to get those caught up this coming inspection season," he said. "I know that we have some that need catching up and some that are severely overdue."
In the 2014-15 fiscal year, the state spent about $1.5 million on the dam safety program, compared with $2 million the year before. But that covers oversight, not the costs to repair the many dams primarily in the hands of private owners.
"It's really the responsibility of the dam owner to maintain and operate the dam that is conducive to the safety of the downstream public," Denton said. "We simply are charged with going out and doing inspections and, where necessary, notifying owners of any deficiencies we identify and, if necessary, go a step forward and go toward enforcement."
Fixing dams an expensive proposition
Complying with the law, however, often carries a high cost for dam owners.
"Repairs of dams are not inexpensive," Denton said. "Often, the private property owner just doesn’t have the funds that are necessary to maintain or make the necessary repairs to their dams."
Public funds aren't always available, even when there are risks to residents downstream. That's why Vinson said private owners always have the option to breach the dam, clearing a channel large enough so it no longer retains water.
"We don't make them fix something they need to fix when it might cost less to do away with the dam altogether," Vinson said.
The high costs of maintenance aren't unique to North Carolina.
U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., introduced a bill in May that would authorize up to $800 million in federal funding over five years for grants to repair dams that have been deemed deficient. But that money would only be used for publicly-owned dams.
The bill has remained in the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure since the spring and has no Senate sponsors.
Despite its lack of progress, Lori Spragens, executive director of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, said Maloney's bill is a step in the right direction.
"We're really hoping governors, the administration and legislators will stop and really look at their dam safety program and give it some more resources," she said.
Vinson said his staff tries to be as efficient as possible with existing resources. Cross-training engineers, who handle inspections of dams as well as development at construction sites, means there are "62 sets of eyes out there" monitoring risks to the public that are often interconnected, he said.
'We're really hoping governors, the administration and legislators will stop and really look at their dam safety program and give it some more resources.'
Lori Spragens, Association of State Dam Safety Officials
But Vinson said it's important to remember that many of the dams state and federal regulators are charged with overseeing are far older than the laws designed to keep nearby residents safe from structural failure or overtopping.
The oldest dam in existence, according to a 2013 federal dam database, is the Old Oaken Bucket Pond Dam, which was built in 1640 in Massachusetts. Thirty-six other dams in the U.S. were built before 1800. North Carolina's two oldest dams were built in Chatham County in 1830.
"Many of the dams we have to regulate in the state were built pre-law," Vinson said. "In fact, for the vast majority of the dams in North Carolina, the state inherited them in 1969."
Spragens said dams can "function into perpetuity" if properly maintained and upgraded. If potentially dangerous dams are not preserved, however, they "have the potential to fail with tragic consequences," according to a report from the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
That's the concern of homeowners like Wood, who says the structures are frequently overlooked in discussions of the country's increasingly aging infrastructure.
"Even as you think of the state of the critical infrastructure across the United States, you think of bridges. You don’t think of dams – that’s the passive threat," Wood said. "There’s just an assumption that it’s a dam: It’s got requirements, it will certainly hold."
He said the possibility of dam failure means more than just a dollar amount in losses, and he'd like to see more thought given to the people living downstream rather than just the structures a breach could damage.
"How are you going to replace, in-kind, a log cabin that was built in 1830?" Wood said. "You just can’t do that."