Need for Dam Inspections in Oklahoma Growing, Report Says

January 13, 2009

Some dams in Oklahoma do not have a state-required emergency action plan that outlines possible dangers and steps to protect residents in case of a breach and dozens of dams had not been inspected within the state-mandated one-year period, according to a published report.

Although most of Oklahoma’s dams are low-hazard dams and would cause no deaths and little economic problems if they failed, monitoring even remote dams is becoming increasingly important.

Not only are Oklahoma’s dams aging – more than 400 were built before 1950 – but also communities are springing up downstream from some of them, placing people and property in their paths.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma, like many other states, is struggling to keep up with inspections and maintenance because its dam safety program is understaffed, said Brad Iarossi, chairman of the legislative committee for the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

Oklahoma, data show, has one of the worst employee-to-dam ratios, the Tulsa World reported. Despite having some of the highest dam numbers in the nation, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board has among the fewest dam safety employees.

“Oklahoma has always been one of the poster children for you need to do better,” Iarossi said. “I’m really at a loss why they and some other states are in such bad shape in terms of resources.”

Water Resources Board employees rarely inspect dams, but they must review permits, designs, maintenance reports and inspection data, among other responsibilities. It’s up to a dam’s owners, most of whom are private citizens, to have the structures inspected by a certified engineer.

In all, 934 of the state’s 4,477 dams – about 21 percent – had not been checked within their most recent inspection cycle, according to December data from the Water Resources Board and the Oklahoma Conservation Commission. Most were low-hazard dams that need to be checked once every five years.

Brian Vance, director of information for the board, said some of the dams the state oversees that are listed as uninspected have been inspected, and the board is waiting for paperwork to update its database.

As for the others, Vance said, dam owners simply have not had them checked, and a lack of funding and personnel have prevented them being inspected by state engineers.

Only four states have more dams than Oklahoma. Yet Oklahoma has a smaller budget and fewer dam safety employees – or their full-time equivalents – than most states.

In 2006, for example, Oklahoma employed three dam safety employees and had a program budget of $395,336, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

North Carolina and Georgia, on the other hand, are home to a similar number of dams, but have three to five times the number of dam safety employees and more than two times Oklahoma’s budget.

“Oklahoma, in general, does not support infrastructure improvements,” said Dan Keithline of the Tulsa engineering firm Craig and Keithline, which has inspected local dams. “It’s pitiful.”

According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, Oklahoma has the nation’s second highest percentage of deficient high-hazard dams. Fifty-two percent of the state’s potentially deadly dams need repair. Only Delaware has a higher percentage.

Anything from erosion to tree roots to burrowing animals can cause deficiencies.
Because of their deadly potential, high-hazard dams are required to have emergency action plans. But not all of them do.

For example, a 64-foot-tall high-hazard dam on Bellcow Lake in Lincoln County stores some 41,300 acre-feet of water but has no emergency plan.

Neither does the 54-foot-tall high-hazard dam on the North Canadian River in Pottawatomie County.

Forty-four of Oklahoma’s high-hazard dams do not have a state-mandated emergency action plan, a World analysis found. Five of the dams without an action plan also missed last year’s inspection.

Information from: Tulsa World,

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