Virginia Residents Worry About ‘High Hazard’ Dam

September 3, 2010

The people who live in the homes and cabins along the Maury River in Rockbridge County are fairly certain of this: If the nearby Goshen Dam ever breaks, the massive wall of water and rock that will wash through their community will kill folks.

And, increasingly, they want to know why nobody seems to be doing anything to prepare for that possibility — especially since the federal government concluded more than 30 years ago that the big earthen dam is a “high hazard.” The government followed up that assessment earlier this decade with a report that the dam is “at risk of failure” if a once-in-200-years storm hits.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report concluded that failure of the dam, one of about 30 “high hazard” dams in the state, would potentially kill 28 people, threaten 265 and cause $25 million in damage along the stretch of river from the dam to Rockbridge Baths. (The corps calculated there are 165 structures and 330 vehicles in the area’s flood plain.) And with each passing year — the dam is now 44 years old -— the threat of a catastrophic storm looms larger for residents.

But the story of why the Goshen Dam has not been upgraded is one of government intervention followed by government inertia, an approach that has frustrated people for years. The federal government agreed to “repair and upgrade” the privately owned dam in 1996, only to fail to do the work.

“The dam is very dangerous and it needs to be fixed,” said Linda Larsen, who owns a cabin on the riverbank. “For people who live there, it’s pretty scary.”

The dam, 38 feet high and 1,300 feet long, holds back the Little Calfpasture River before it merges with the Calfpasture River to become the Maury. The dam was built for the Boy Scouts of America in 1966 to create the 425-acre Lake Merriweather just outside the town of Goshen.

The dam, the lake and surrounding land are owned by the National Capital Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, which brings Scouts from the Washington region to the Goshen Scout Reservation at the lake.

Though the dam has always been private property, in 1996 — at the request of the congressional delegation from Northern Virginia, according to U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s office — the dam was included in the Water Resources Development Act, a law that spelled out which dams nationwide would get federally funded upgrades. Work on the Goshen Dam was priced at $6 million, though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported in 2006 that it could put “concrete armor” over the dam at a cost of $5 million.

But despite various appropriations over the years, Congress has never fully funded the work, said Brian Rheinhart, a Corps of Engineers project manager in Norfolk. Money was appropriated each year from 2003 through 2006, he said, but never in a lump sum big enough to do the armorization work; consequently, at the end of each year, the corps took the money and put it toward other projects. Overall, $5.7 million has been appropriated piecemeal over the years, of which $3.6 million was put toward other projects.

“It’s a very low priority project for us,” Rheinhart said. “We put our priority on the dams that we own.”

The corps oversees 650 dams nationwide.

So, because the federal government agreed to take on the Goshen Dam’s upgrade, its owners, the Boy Scouts, have no plans to do the work. And because the Corps of Engineers has spent much of the appropriated money on other projects, no work on the concrete armor has begun.

Residents remain frustrated.

“My concern, and I guess it’s everyone else’s around here, is that the dam would break,” said Nat Jobe, who lives above the Maury at Wilson Springs.

Mike Donaghue, director of support services for the National Capital Area Council of the Boy Scouts, said the organization is doing everything it can to get adequate federal funding. Meanwhile, he said, the Boy Scouts are working with state dam safety officials and conducting regular inspections.

But ultimately, Donaghue said, it’s the Corps of Engineers’ responsibility.

Cabin owner Larsen, though, said the Boy Scouts are shirking their responsibility. If the federal government ever does the work and the organization sells the property, she added, the Boy Scouts should then use some of the profits to reimburse taxpayers. Donaghue said the organization has considered paying for the work, but “we’ve never had the money.” According to documents filed with the IRS, the National Capital Area Council had revenues of $11 million in 2008, while the parent organization had revenues of $150 million.

Partly resigned to seeing no work ever done, residents along the Maury have begun agitating for a notification system to give warning if the dam should break. They petitioned the Rockbridge County government for a comprehensive warning system in January, not long after a floodgate at the dam malfunctioned and caused the river to rise dramatically.

Residents said they have received no response to their petition.

But Robert Foresman, emergency management coordinator for the county, said a plan is in place. The Boy Scouts, he said, have contact information for all homeowners and landowners in the area, and they’re required to keep Foresman’s office up to date. In an emergency, he said, he also would contact everyone via the county’s e-mail and text messaging alert system, and if need be, firefighters would go door to door.

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