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Dam Safety Reveals Water Supply Opportunity

February 19, 2013

An outstanding investigative spread in the Macon Telegraph puts a spotlight on dam safety, state regulation, community awareness of the risks, and the life-cycle of earthen dams.  But the story also reveals an opportunity for those interested in the future of Georgia’s water supply.

In the first of a four piece story, Heather Duncan concludes: the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s (EPD) Safe Dams Program and the seven staff responsible for investigating, evaluating, and helping shore up more than 4,000 dams is underfunded and understaffed.  As such, dams – holding drinking water, coal ash, kaolin waste, pulp mill by-products or other pollutants – could fail and threaten downstream homeowners (read: with death) and communities’ drinking water supplies.  The series includes an interactive map identifying Middle Georgia dams and dam safety videos.

Dam failures in Georgia are not uncommon according to this part of the Telegraph’s series.  Dams failed in Middle Georgia during Tropical Storm Alberto in 1994.  During another event, one failed in Athens in 2010.  And of course, the most talked about dam failure in Georgia took place in 1977 when the Toccoa Dam broke and killed 39 sleeping people.  This event spurred President Jimmy Carter to launch a national dam safety program.  You can read more about these events in a previous Water Wire post and about national dam safety at Water Crunch.

What is also not uncommon is for residents to be unaware they are living downstream of a high-hazard dam, or for homeowners associations to not know they are responsible for dam maintenance.

The dam safety issue can be sliced by the numbers.  Of the five states with the most dams, Georgia ranks number five.

First, the big picture.  While the big ones are easy to find, we don’t know exactly how many dams there are in Georgia.  The total number of dams in Georgia would include countless mill dams like those found from Columbus to Augusta, more than a dozen Georgia Power dams, and more than 350 “watershed” dams built for flood control since the 1950s.  According to the National Inventory of Dams (NID), there are at least 4,606 dams over six feet tall in Georgia.

Per state law, Georgia’s Dam Safety Program only inspects dams taller than twenty-five feet and that hold back more than 100 acre-feet, and according to the NID, there approximately 2,000 in the state.  Of those, approximately 480 are classified as “high-hazard” dams, meaning a failed dam would affect people living or working immediately downstream.

Second, by the basin.  According to a variety of data sources, there are more than 25,000 dams and impoundments – as large as Lake Lanier and as small as an agricultural impoundment – in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin.

Third, by a sub-basin.  Data from the upper Oconee River watershed demonstrates that the overall of number of impoundments in any given basin is almost certainly a low-ball figure.  For example, the NID identified 276 dams in the upper Oconee watershed, while a “fine scale analysis” discovered more than 5,400 impoundments.  In other words, the NID “does not account for 95 percent of the reservoirs in this watershed.”  Read the 2002 University of Georgia River Basin Center report here.

Water Supply Opportunity?  Given the sheer number of dams and artificial reservoirs in the state, it’s fair to say we already have more than enough water “stored” on our landscape.  While the dams certainly affect downstream flow, the number of dams and acres of impounded water signal that Georgia taxpayers should not pay for additional new dams, amenity lakes and reservoirs.  The Governor’s Water Supply Program (GWSP) is distributing scarce dollars to new water supply projects when the state should really be investing our tax dollars in making existing infrastructure more safe and efficient.  If fiscally conservative Georgians really understood the politics behind the GWSP, they would probably beat it up as they did the Regional T-SPLOST in 2012.

Georgians already have a significant supply of water in storage.  It’s worth exploring if sources like Lake Lanier could be expanded (while protecting downstream interests) and tapped more cheaply than building new supply sources.  A good reservoir expansion example includes Douglas County’s Dog River Reservoir.

One Comment leave one →
  1. DrinkMoreWater permalink
    February 19, 2013 8:47 pm

    What you advocate is not new.
    Governor Perdue signed the Georgia Water Supply Act of 2008 (SB342) and one of the results was GEFA’s study of potentially expanding/using current reservoirs/lakes. That study is available here:

    The problem of using most current lakes in Georgia for water supply is that they are not fit for that purpose – their shallowness/size causes water quality/quantity issues. A water supply reservoir \must be able to withstand a drought so that its safe yield is sufficient so enough water of good quality is available when most needed.

    Georgia really has no natural lakes.
    “Man-made lakes are water impoundments—or water accumulated in reservoirs—that do not occur naturally in the landscape. The land that makes up present-day Georgia had few natural lakes before European settlement, and most impoundments, formed by beavers and debris dams from high flows, were relatively small. The lack of glacial retreat, land slope, and local geology provided conditions for large and small rivers and streams but not for lakes.The natural water bodies that occur in Georgia are primarily located in the southern part of the state in the Coastal Plain, where sinkhole lakes and isolated wetlands in natural shallow depressions largely fed by rain and shallow groundwater, called Carolina bays, form.”

    The vast number of man made impoundments, ponds, and lakes in Georgia really has removed the possibility of determining/restoring “natural waters”. Improvements to water quality and aquatic habit can be reasonably achieved but to go back to “nature” is a far stretch with so many little farm ponds dotting the state.

    If you can get Lake Lanier re-allocated for drinking water I believe Governor Deal would be jubilant.

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