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13 area dams could be reclassified as high risk

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The number of dams designated "high risk" under Georgia's Safe Dams Act could more than double in Richmond and Columbia counties, but a backlog in state enforcement because of budget cuts could drag the reclassification process out years longer than scheduled.

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Windmill Plantation subdivision dam is a Category II but is awaiting reclassification studies. Development has crept into what was vacant land across William Few Parkway from the base of the earthen structure.   John Curry/Staff
John Curry/Staff
Windmill Plantation subdivision dam is a Category II but is awaiting reclassification studies. Development has crept into what was vacant land across William Few Parkway from the base of the earthen structure.

The 1978 law, enacted after a dam failure in Toccoa killed 39 people, requires state officials to inspect annually all "Category I" high-risk dams where loss of life could occur in the event of a failure; and to reinspect lesser "Category II" dams at least every five years in case new development warrants redesignation to Category I.

Currently, there are six high-risk dams in Augusta and three in Columbia County, but at least 13 additional Category II dams have been identified for reclassification studies, said Tom Woosley, the manager of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division's Safe Dams Program.

Those 13 dams are among about 520 statewide, and the list continues to grow.

"The list is backlogged," he said. "We can knock out maybe 30 to 40 a year, but in recent years we were adding more dams than we could get studied."

The Safe Dams Program once had 12 employees but has shrunk to eight, making it difficult to reinspect all Category II dams every five years.

One of the Category I dams identified decades ago is at Woodbridge subdivision in Evans, where homeowners are under a state mandate requiring improvements that could cost up to $250,000.

The 33-acre lake, built in 1973, was modified after the Safe Dams Act was adopted.

"There was a lot of work done to bring it up to the standards back then, but those standards changed over time, and now we are being forced to bring it up to newer standards," said Joe Wheeler, the vice president of the Woodbridge homeowners association, which has spent $30,000 on engineering work and is awaiting state approval for construction plans.

Although a Category I designation is labeled "high risk," it doesn't mean a dam is poorly built or improperly maintained, he said. Rather, it means the structure is held to standards designed to prevent the dam from getting into a condition where it could fail.

"They've never come out and said our dam is in danger of breaching or anything like that," he said. "But all the things they are requiring are safeguards against that."

Although owners of Category I dams are working to comply with state rules and finance needed improvements, the delay in re-evaluating other dams could help their owners escape such scrutiny for years, Wheeler said.

"We're being held to overly onerous requirements, while others go by without even falling into their area of responsibility."

One of the Category II dams awaiting reclassification studies is on a much larger lake just three miles away, at Windmill Plantation subdivision.

The dam's Category II status, which exempts it from stricter rules, was adopted years ago, before development crept into the then-vacant land just across William Few Parkway from the base of the earthen structure.

Today, several homes are in that zone -- in addition to the Greenbrier preschool and day care center, which -- according to its Web site -- opened in late 2005 and tends to about 200 children.

Woosley would not identify all 13 local dams awaiting possible reclassification but acknowledged Windmill as one of them because of the development in its downstream path.

"That one is a Category II at least for today," he said. "People are building things all the time, so it's very common to find new hazards below an older dam."

Although state officials are backlogged on inspections, local authorities also keep watch over dams and flood-prone areas, said Pam Tucker, Columbia County's emergency operations director.

"With all the state budget cuts, they're having a harder time than they used to have, and they've always been understaffed," she said. "The program doesn't really get the attention it should."

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Georgia's Safe Dams Program

-- Created in 1978---the year after 39 people died in a dam failure in Toccoa, Ga.

-- Objectives are to inspect and permit high-risk dams to reduce the risk of dam failures.

Category I: Dams whose failure could cause loss of life are classified as Category I or high hazard. Category I dams require a permit and are held to stricter, more frequent inspection and higher maintenance standards.

Category II: Dams that pose no threat must be re-evaluated every five years in case new development warrants reclassification to Category I.

Category I (high-risk) dams:

Columbia County: Woodbridge Lake Dam, Erin's Place Lake Dam, Vernon Pond Dam

Richmond County: Goshen Plantation Lake Dam, Lake Aumond Dam, Augusta Tech Retention Pond Dam, Forest Hills Lake Dam, Wrightsboro Road Detention Pond Dam, Tobacco Road Water Treatment Plant Dam

Source: Georgia Environmental Protection Division

Background on Georgia's Safe Dams inspection program
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Junket831 12/12/10 - 07:50 am
Wasn't work already done on

Wasn't work already done on Forest Hills dam in the past two years?

ChiefWanigas 12/12/10 - 10:28 am
Why include the photo of

Why include the photo of Windmill Plantation, when it's not on the list... typical misleading AC!

Riverman1 12/12/10 - 01:21 pm
The diversion dam at Savannah

The diversion dam at Savannah Rapids Pavillion has been reported as being deficient with holes appearing at the base. I wonder why that's not on the list? Also, I've always wondered about the Stevens Creek Dam. That thing looks flimsy to me.

CleveL 12/12/10 - 01:26 pm
I understood the point of the

I understood the point of the article to be the potential for life-threatening or catastrophic property damage if a "Class I" dam failed. Would anybody/thing be threatened if the diversion dam were to collapse?

Riverman1 12/12/10 - 02:02 pm
CleveL, I'll have to think

CleveL, I'll have to think about that, but I'd guess there would be if the diversion dam failed. That would be a lot of water suddenly in the lower river. If the Stevens Creek Dam failed, I have no doubt it would be castastrophic. There is a huge lake-like back-up behind it.

mable8 12/12/10 - 09:20 pm
Old news brought to the

Old news brought to the present--which goes to show nothing has been done in all these years except maybe a little bandaid treatment for some really serious problems. When one of these dams finally fails, which governor and/or legislators should be held responsible for failure to act and correct the problems accordingly? Looks like politics as usual.

Austin Rhodes
Austin Rhodes 12/14/10 - 09:33 am
These "vanity dams" are

These "vanity dams" are trouble. I say none should be built without some type of bond that insures they are maintained for life. Was there a reason for that Woodbridge dam other than to make a pretty pond for the neighborhood?

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