In their role of protecting the public from a catastrophic dam breach, Indiana officials have long known they have a credibility problem.
As they prod the owners of private dams to make repairs, the state itself owns dams in various stages of decay.
In 2005, The Journal Gazette found that about half of the high- and significant-hazard dams owned by the state – those that could cause loss of life or property damage if breached – needed significant repairs or maintenance.
Today state officials point to several measures they’ve taken to improve dam safety, especially among state-owned dams. And they take issue with a recent report that ranks Indiana high for the number of regulated hazardous dams needing repairs.
“It’s been a special thing to be able to tell folks, ‘Yeah, we’re working on our own dams. We’re trying to do the right thing and lead by example,’ ” said Ken Smith, assistant director of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ water division.
Last month, the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan group that works to solve domestic and international problems, released a report based on 2010 data that ranks Indiana sixth among states, with 89 high-hazard dams in disrepair.
The report calls for increasing federal maintenance spending for the nation’s dams by at least $1 billion to save lives and money on cleanup when a dam fails.
“Communities in every state are at risk due to the presence of high-hazard dams in need of repair,” the report states. “About 14,000 dams across the country can be classified as ‘high-hazard’ dams, meaning a dam failure or operational error could result in the loss of human life.”
But the report acknowledges not all dams are currently counted. Alabama doesn’t even have a state dam inspection program, and six other states – Texas, South Carolina, Hawaii, Florida, South Dakota and Alaska – do not rate the condition of their high-hazard dams. In fact, the report notes that a third of the nation’s high-hazard dams aren’t included because they aren’t rated.
“Having sat in multiple meetings over the years I know that many states in the nation don’t even carry a condition rating in any database for their dams,” said Smith, a past president of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. “I know for a fact that it is only a smaller group of the states that are doing any kind of a condition rating at all. They are being nagged a lot to start doing that.”
The Center for American Progress referred questions to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, which provided the Center data it gathered from the federal National Inventory of Dams.
Mark Ogden, the association’s project manager, said that while the Center for American Progress’ top-10 list is based on available data, it isn’t accurate because of the missing states.
“You have to take what they’re presenting there kind of with a grain of salt,” he said.
The federal government classifies dams as high, significant or low hazard, depending on the degree of potential damage if they are breached.
On inspection reports, the Indiana DNR requires a dam’s overall condition be rated as – from better to worse – satisfactory, fair, conditionally poor, poor or unsatisfactory.
Of Indiana’s 239 high-hazard dams, almost eight in 10 are either fair or conditionally poor, according to data provided by the DNR. Only two, both in Johnson County south of Indianapolis, are listed as unsatisfactory.
Of the 18 that are state-owned, 12 are fair or conditionally poor; one is in poor condition.
More than half of Indiana’s high-hazard dams are privately owned.
The state inspects significant-hazard dams every three years and low-hazard dams every five years. But in 2002, legislators shifted the cost of inspecting high-hazard dams every two years to dam owners. According to the DNR, most inspections cost between $3,500 and $5,000. .
The move caused some concern among some private owners.
Facing inspection costs every two years, at least one local dam owner took steps to get out from under state jurisdiction.
Bittersweet Moors Dam, built in 1971 in Allen County’s Aboite Township and owned by a neighborhood association, was the only high-hazard dam in northeast Indiana rated by the state as in poor condition. It is a 20-foot high earthen berm that was never built to permit requirements, according to documents filed with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
Authorities have said that if breached, Bittersweet Moors Dam would unleash a torrent that could damage homes and top the portion of U.S. 24 below with 3 feet of water.
But the neighborhood association successfully argued that the volume of water contained by the dam was under the minimum for state regulation. Therefore the state no longer requires an inspection, and Loy Fisel, neighborhood association vice president, said the association has no plans to pay for one.
“It still is impounding water; it still presents some kind of risk to downstream areas,” the DNR’s Smith said. “Those jurisdictional numbers have been around for years and unfortunately I think many people built dams knowing those numbers and tried to build slightly under the jurisdictional limit.”
But dams have been receiving increased attention, the DNR’s Smith said, especially those that are state-owned.
Perhaps most significant, since 2008 when flooding affected most of the state and some dams failed, $30 million in federal money has been directed to dam repairs in the form of grants, Smith said. And $5 million more is planned for the program. While a list of projects was not immediately available late last week, Smith said some communities are doing major upgrades to high-hazard dams.
Another measure taken by the state involves emergency action plans, which Smith now calls incident and emergency action plans
In 2005, only seven high- or significant-hazard dams in Indiana – and only one state-owned – had a plan to alert residents and responders if an emergency arose. Today, 43 dams – including 13 of the 18 state-owned high-hazard dams – have such a plan. While some states require them, Indiana does not.
The name change is to de-emphasize reaction to an emergency and have dam owners understand their responsibility to respond early to lesser events, Smith said.
Finally, state officials have reached out to the state’s real estate agents in an effort to educate their clients about dams when buying homes, Smith said. Homebuyers are often unaware a potential house is in the path of a dam or they might have financial liability for a dam as a neighborhood association member, he added.
As a result, the Indiana Association of Realtors developed a module for agents’ continuing education program that began last spring, Smith said.
“What we were finding out was that Realtors knew very little about dams in their community,” he said. “To me that’s a phenomenal thing, to begin to have Realtors becoming aware of what’s going on with dams in the communities around them.”