Alabama’s Dam Oversight Void Stirs Safety Concerns, Confusion
By Jim Malewitz, Staff Writer
CENTRE, Alabama — When Scott Curry brought a backhoe to the banks of Terrapin Creek here two years ago, he wasn’t expecting to cause a ruckus. After all, his in-laws own this patch of land where an aging grist mill sits. It’s just one slice of many properties, complete with “No Trespassing” postings, that the Ellis family has purchased along the forest-lined waters.
As he has done every few years, Curry used the backhoe to rebuild a dam whose original concrete structure washed away decades ago. The short mound of earth, with broken concrete and lingering spindles of rebar, slows and slightly pools the shallow water, providing the family with a backup irrigation source.
But the structure has enraged kayakers and canoeists, who have taken to the two-dozen-mile Terrapin in growing numbers, and sparked a major scrap in a community where everybody knows everybody.
“When I went down to take a look at it, I couldn’t believe it,” says Jim Felder, executive director of Alabama Scenic River Trail, an advocacy group for water recreation.
The obstruction forced paddlers to pull their boats out of the water and haul them on land to the other side. And some who tried to shimmy through emerged with torn hulls and scraped limbs. “There’s people who actually got hurt there for sure,” says Hank Nelson, who runs a nearby boat outfitter called Redneck Yacht Club.
Felder complained to authorities, noting the dam’s hazards and nuisance. But he learned that because of a quirky void in state law, little could be done to mediate the dispute.
Alabama is the only state that doesn’t regulate dams, leaving thousands of aging structures never inspected or regulated in any way. That includes plenty not much bigger than Curry’s, but also larger structures holding back waters that, if released, could swamp neighborhoods. It includes dams built over a century ago, and hundreds that don't appear on any official state list.
“There’s nobody out there saying, ‘Is this safe?’” says Mitch Reid, a program director at Alabama Rivers Alliance. “You end up with sort of a time bomb.”
No dam regulations
Federal regulators inspect U.S.- owned dams and those used in producing hydroelectricity. Those mostly large structures are typically monitored and quickly repaired when needed. That leaves states to regulate the rest, which amounts to about 8 in 10 of the dams nationwide. Most are privately owned.
But Alabama never enacted safety regulations, leaving its dams without scrutiny. Perhaps more troubling, the state doesn’t even know how many it has. Currently, the estimate is 2,228. That includes 201 described as “high hazard,” meaning their failures could be deadly. Water officials, however, expect the true number of total structures is closer to 4,000.
Most states developed dam safety programs decades ago, spurred by a series of catastrophic failures that shocked the nation. In 1972, major collapses in West Virginia and South Dakota combined to kill as many as 360 people. Five years later, with several smaller disasters in between, failures killed 45 people in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and 39 people in Toccoa Falls, Georgia. President Jimmy Carter launched a national study of dams, leading many states to develop standards.
Alabama has seen at least a few failures. That includes a private dam in Etowah County, just down the road from the Ellis dam, which washed away in 2009, prompting residential evacuations, closing a dozen roads and costing about $100,000 in property damage with up to 12 feet of flooding. But no reported failure has been deadly in Alabama, and none has spurred lawmakers to act.
“When other states were doing the deep studies, we weren’t getting enough info,” says Lee Helms, whose 24-year tenure at the Alabama Emergency Management Agency ended in 2003.
Additionally, Helms and others note, Alabama’s lack of a safety program has blocked it from receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants over the years — money that could fund inspectors or educational programs. “We kind of fell behind in that movement,” Helms says.
Over the past decades, the legislature has rebuffed several oversight proposals. The most recent bill, proposed in 2008, would have merely required the state to count and classify its dams — not to regulate them. Still, the bill failed to emerge from committee.
Legislation here has faced pushback from some of the state’s most powerful industries: utilities, insurers, agriculture and catfish farmers, who have said a safety program would prove burdensome. On its website, the Alabama Catfish Producers, a division of the Alabama Farmers Federation, lists among its top goals monitoring any proposed “safe dam” legislation that may resurface.
“The one who has the bigger stick wins in the end,” says State Representative Randy Wood, a Republican who proposed the 2008 bill.
Terrapin Dam in Limbo
Scott Curry should have sought a permit before building up his Terrapin Creek dam — or “dam rubble,” as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers termed it. That’s required under federal regulations governing the filling of waters. He didn’t do that. But now it can’t be removed, either, since federal officials determined the action could “do more harm than good” to the stream. They recommended Curry consult with federal agencies on future work.
The decision has hardly satisfied those who want the obstruction gone. “That’s not the signal you want to send to other potential offenders,” says Felder. “It’s a wink and a nudge and a slap on the wrist.”
But federal bureaucrats’ hands were tied, and they lacked authority to regulate safety concerns. In any other state, the boaters could have called the dam safety office. Not in Alabama.
What's the overall condition of Alabama’s dams?
“There’s really no way to tell,” says Brian Atkins, director of the state’s Office of Water Resources, which has led past efforts to develop safety legislation.
If rest of the country is an indication, it’s not rosy.
The number of deficient dams in the U.S. — those with structural or hydraulic issues that increase the risk of failure — is rising dramatically, outpacing the rate at which they can be fixed. Most were built before 1970, including more than 2,000 nationwide that are more than a century old. Many early structures were fitted with corrugated metal pipes, which rust through and need to be replaced after 50 years. It’s just one type of internal erosion that can continue for years undetected.
“They all need to be inspected,” says Paul Schweiger, an engineering manager with Pennsylvania-based Gannett Fleming, who has worked on dams throughout the country.
But even outside of Alabama, that’s not always happening. As Stateline reported in October, most state safety programs have stretched meager resources past their limits, leaving just a handful of inspectors to watch over thousands of dams. South Carolina, for instance, employs less than the equivalent of two full-time employees to oversee its 2,380 structures, 160 of which are high-hazard.
If dam safety legislation managed to wriggle through the Alabama legislature “we’d probably only have one or two people,” Atkins told Stateline in an interview. That’s the sobering reality for a department whose staff has been sliced by 40 percent over the past five years. Nevertheless, Alabama water officials still try to do what they can, even with no regulatory authority and little financial backing.
Despite being ineligible for many federal dam-related grants, the department managed to net $40,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Association to perform aerial surveys of dams. The information gleaned from the air tells officials nothing about a structure’s condition, but it shows the location and how much water it’s holding. “It’s better than nothing,” Atkins says.
The state has surveyed 22 of 67 counties, adding at least six a year.
Atkins expects the state at some point to see a policy breakthrough, even if it takes a while. “It’s not a matter of if,” he says, “but when.”
Wood, the Republican lawmaker, agrees. This year or next year, he plans to revisit legislation that would help Alabama classify its dams. If officials find major safety issues, then he would consider further legislation. “This thing ain’t over,” he says.
This article has been updated to clarify that the federal government – not states -- regulate some non-federal dams, including those used in producing hydroelectricity.