In August 2018, more than 100 homes in Lynchburg were evacuated after a public safety alert. The College Lake Dam — an aging 1930s structure owned by the city — was approaching “imminent failure.” If the dam breached, 17 feet of water could fill the city in seven minutes.
This was an extreme case and, while Lynchburg was spared the worst, the city and the University of Lynchburg decided to remove the dam to create wetlands. Repairing the dam was estimated at more than $20 million — a local snapshot of a costly national infrastructure issue.
Dams need more attention and resources. Over the past two decades, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has compiled six editions of its “Infrastructure Report Card.” Each time, dams were given a “D” or “D+” grade.
Across Virginia, there are more than 2,900 regulated dams, with an average age of more than 50 years old. Owners and regulators face an uphill battle to keep the structures safe. We support state officials’ message to the public: Don’t be afraid, but be aware.
“We have an aging inventory of dams, which obviously leads to the necessity of continued maintenance and upgrades,” said Russ Baxter, deputy director of soil and water conservation and dam safety and floodplain management for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).
Dams serve critical purposes. They support recreation opportunities, from picnic areas to boating. They create reservoirs to store water and help control floods. They produce more than 100,000 megawatts of hydropower each year, a clean energy source.
But the process of keeping dams secure is complex. A majority in Virginia are not publicly owned like College Lake in Lynchburg or Williams Island in Richmond. They’re privately owned by individuals, homeownership associations or other entities.
If the dam is in disrepair, DCR alerts the owner and establishes requirements to bring the dam into compliance. Is its spillway adequate to pass heavy rainfall? Do the drains work? Is it free of trees? Then comes the hard part — who is responsible and is there money to make fixes?
“Many dam owners don’t have the resources needed to make their upgrades,” said Mark Ogden, project manager for the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. “That’s the biggest stumbling block to getting dams fixed.”
Age or condition aside, every dam in Virginia receives one of three hazard classifications from DCR. “High” means failure would cause probable loss of life or serious property damage. “Significant” means loss of life or appreciable property damage might occur. “Low” signals no expected loss of life or property damage, excluding the dam owner’s land.
Baxter and Ogden cautioned these measures are not reflective of the safety of a particular dam. They just assess what could be damaged if a failure occurred. Every six years, DCR and the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board (VSWCB) issue certificates to dam owners — a check-in to assure the structure is in good regulatory standing.
But at the Dam Safety 2019 conference in Orlando, Fla., last week, Ogden was among hundreds of professionals discussing changing weather patterns and high-intensity storms. These systems challenge how dams are designed and regulated. As more development occurs, assessments also can fluctuate.
Think of a rural dam built in the 1960s. Fifty years later, a farmer sells the land and a subdivision is built downstream. More development could spell a change from a low- to high-hazard potential.
“A lot of dam repair issues are upgrades because of changes in classification or new standards,” Ogden said.
New dams also can appear at any time. DCR has one regional engineer for each of the state’s five regions, which are vast. The Richmond area is part of Region 2, which stretches north to King George County, west to Goochland County and east to Hampton.
A 2018 executive order by Gov. Ralph Northam included a review of dam safety as part of overall environmental resiliency efforts. But there is more work to be done. Baxter estimated 60% of Virginia’s structures have “undetermined” hazard classifications. These dams have yet to be reached by DCR staff, or information from the owner is still being procured.
We urge the public to help be a change agent and communicate with state officials. Obey signs along dams that say to stay off the property. Report any issues, small or large, to firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay engaged on Virginia DCR’s Twitter and Facebook channels.
Wherever you live in the commonwealth, there are four questions to consider: Is there a dam in your area? Does it have an emergency action plan? What steps are in place if there were an incident? And if you need to evacuate, where would you go?
“We just want people to be aware if they live downstream,” Baxter said. “It doesn’t mean they need to panic. But they ought to be aware. Things happen. You never know when a hurricane or significant weather event will arrive.”
— Chris Gentilviso