Delaware Takes Steps to Establish Dam Safety Program to Avoid Disaster

Wed January 11, 2006 - Northeast Edition
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DOVER, DE (AP) While Louisiana residents cope with the aftermath of levee failures in New Orleans and some Massachusetts residents breathe sighs of relief following the near failure of a 173-year-old dam upstream from a town, dam safety remains a fledgling issue in Delaware.

Until last year, Delaware was one of only two states, along with Alabama, that did not have dam safety laws.

The General Assembly approved legislation last year to regulate publicly-owned dams after lawmakers agreed to exempt most privately-owned dams. But money for a dam safety program wasn’t made available until earlier this year, and the regulations have yet to be established.

In response to recommendations by a state surface water management task force, lawmakers approved $180,000 in first-year funding for the new dam safety program.

The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) will use approximately $80,000 of the money to hire an engineer to lead the program. DNREC will use the rest of the money to pay URS Corp., one of the world’s largest engineering design firms, to develop draft regulations with criteria for inspections of publicly owned dams.

Of the 61 Delaware dams included in the Army Corps of Engineers’ National Inventory of Dams, nine are considered high-hazard dams, meaning that failure probably would result in loss of life and major property damage.

Another 27 structures are considered significant hazard dams, meaning failure could cause some loss of life and property damage, while 25 are rated as low-hazard dams that are unlikely to cause loss of life or significant property damage if they fail.

Among Delaware’s high-hazard dams is the Edgar Hoopes Dam in New Castle County, which holds a reservoir that is the main source of drinking water for the city of Wilmington and has a capacity of approximately 1.8 billion gallons. An inspection commissioned by the city in 2002 found that the dam, which dates to the early 1930s and is the only concrete dam in the state, is structurally sound but repairs to the concrete surface are needed.

Of the nine high-hazard dams in Delaware, three are owned by the city of Wilmington, four by DNREC, and one by the state Department of Transportation. The federal inventory also noted that the Edgemoor Reservoir in New Castle County, owned by United Water Co., is a high-hazard structure.

United Water Spokeswoman Susan Skomorucha said the 22-million-gal., earth-fill reservoir was last inspected by DNREC officials in 2000 but that her company routinely inspects and maintains it.

DNREC Secretary John Hughes said the Edgemoor Reservoir is covered under the dam safety legislation, but that low-hazard private dams were exempted because farmers didn’t want to incur costs if their dams posed no threat of public liability.

With no oversight of those private dams, state officials acknowledge that they don’t know whether there are any unsafe structures in Delaware.

“I can’t say how safe the private dams in Delaware are,” said DNREC Deputy Secretary David Small. “I can say that should they fail, the chances of downstream property damage … is certainly not as great.”

Among those pushing to exempt private landowners from the dam safety legislation was Jack Schreppler, a water company executive whose brother owns a dam that failed a few years ago after severe rains.

“The loss of life in that incident was one goat. It was my brother’s goat,” he said.

Schreppler said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would have covered 90 percent of the cost of rebuilding the dam, but that his brother’s share would have been approximately $200,000 because FEMA wanted to build a structure capable of withstanding a 500-year flood event.

“We just thought that was excessive,” he said, adding that his brother wound up rebuilding the dam for approximately $30,000.

“It’s better than it was, but it’s not a $2-million dam,” Schreppler said.

Despite the potential costs to landowners, Gerald Kauffman, a water resources engineer of the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Agency, said he hoped the state eventually will expand the program to include private dams.

“I would like to see all dams regulated,” he said. “ … The ownership doesn’t really respect the forces that cause dam failure.”

Representatives of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) warn that as development changes the rural landscape, dams once considered to be low-hazard may not stay that way — a phenomenon known as “hazard creep.”

“You build a dam out in the middle of the country, and 20 years later you’ve got people around it,” said Brad Iarossi, who headed Maryland’s dam safety program for 18 years and now leads ASDSO’s legislative efforts.

ASDSO President Ken Smith said the devastation caused by the levee breaks in New Orleans and the close call last month in Massachusetts have drawn renewed attention to dam safety. Smith said the United States has approximately 85,000 state-regulated dams, not including those owned by the federal government and private owners, and that private citizens are just as likely as government entities to own high-hazard dams.

Estimates to repair dams not owned by the federal government range from $30 billion to $40 billion, with approximately $10 billion needed to repair only those classified as high-hazard, Smith said.

A bill pending in Congress would reauthorize the National Dam Safety Program, which provides a small amount of money to the states for regulatory activities but no construction money. Another bill would authorize $350 million over four years to assist states in repairing publicly owned deficient dams that pose safety risks.

In a September report, the Congressional Research Service noted that the demand for such assistance likely will grow in coming years. The report said that more than half of the approximately 80,000 dams in the National Inventory of Dams are privately owned, and almost a third are at least 50 years old, the design life of many dams, while 17,000 will reach that age over the next 10 years.

“As the nation’s dams age and development continues in floodplains, the structural integrity of this infrastructure will become a more significant public safety issue,” the report concluded.

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