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Safe dams come at large cost

By Ed Brock

It all began on Nov. 6, 1977, when the Kelly Barnes dam near Toccoa Falls in the northeast corner of Georgia broke, sending 55 square miles of water rushing onto the town and the campus of the Christian and Missionary Alliance College.

On that day 39 people, mostly students at the school, were killed, a tragedy that eventually resulted in the Georgia Safe Dams Act of 1978.

The Georgia Safe Dams Program, a division of the state's Department of Natural Resources, enforces the act and Tom Woosley is the program manager for the Permitting and Compliance Unit of that program. Across the state the program has been enforced on around 100 dams, and the owners of 75 of those dams have been required to hire engineering firms to come up with plans to repair the dams, Woosley said.

Four of those dams are in Clayton and Henry counties.

Just north of Jonesboro the man who claims ownership of Lake Tara breached the dam containing that lake, telling residents he could not afford to pay the nearly $500,000 in repairs the dam would need to come into compliance with the act.

Members of the property owners' association for Drakes Landing subdivision off Jodeco Road just east of Jonesboro are divided over the heavy cost of fixing the dam there that contains Drake Lake.

Members of the Lake Cindy Civic Club in Henry County are waiting to find out how much they will have to pay to fix their dam. And even the dam still under construction to create the Tussahaw Creek Reservoir in Henry County must meet the act's standards.

Residents around Lake Tara, like Deborah Ybarra, have been consulting with an attorney to decide what they can do about Michael Adamson's draining of the lake. Adamson drained the lake in late June or early July and, in an e-mail to Ybarra Adamson said his reason for draining the lake was because he couldn't afford the work that needed to be done on it.

Ybarra said on Friday that there was no change in the situation.

Under the act dams are divided into two categories. Category II dams are those that, if they fail, no loss of life can be expected. Category I dams are those that, if they fail, it is probable that somebody would lose their life.

The Lake Tara dam had not quite been defined as a Category I dam.

"It was on our list to look at," Woosley said. "It certainly looks like a high risk dam if it failed. There's a row of houses right across the street."

Drakes Landing Homeowner's Association President Dan Campbell spent 24 years as an engineer in the U.S. Army. He said there are actually three projects to finish before the Drakes Lake dam is up to code.

First, the spillway must be expanded. That problem was identified in the late 1990s when the association hired an engineer to take care of some other work on the dam. After that engineer's report the state asked the association to perform a hydrology study.

That study was completed in 2002 and showed the spillway had to be improved to be able to handle a storm event that brings about 10 inches of rain. That amount is one third of the predicted "maximum precipitation" of 30 inches of rain that Woosley said was set by the National Weather Service.

The size of the dam determines what percentage of the maximum precipitation amount it must be able to handle.

"We basically have to take our spillway out and put a new one in," Campbell said. "The current one is about 15 feet wide and the new one has to be about 40 feet wide."

Then the association has to build a permanent siphon system so the lake can be drained in the event of a problem, and also riprap (large pieces of rock) and filter fiber must be laid down to prevent erosion on the inside section of the dam caused by waves.

Just getting the work done will cost around $225,000, Campbell said.

"With the engineering inspection we're looking at close to $300,000," Campbell said.

So far they've collected $223,000, with 60 of the 149 homes in the association paid in full for their share of the cost, which is currently $1,750 for houses off the lake and $3,500 for lakeside properties. But the project remains at a standstill.

"That's not going to be enough to cover the whole project so we can't start it," Campbell said.

Campbell said it's possible that the association could do the spillway work alone and, with a promise to do the rest of the work when the money is raised, the state could give them more time. But the lake would have to remain drained to five feet below its normal pool, as it is now, until all the repairs could be finished.

Woosley said that's standard procedure.

"Overall our first goal is safety, so if they're going to take time to raise the money we're going to require them to lower or drain the lake in the interim," Woosley said.

The cost of the project will go up the longer the association waits, Campbell said, and its possible that if the state gets tired of waiting they will breach the dam, drain the lake and charge the association for the cost. But he doesn't think that will happen.

"They're trying to work with us but they can't wait forever," Campbell said.

Campbell said some of the property owners who haven't paid say they would pay after the work is done, but again he said the work couldn't begin until they have the money.

The association has put up signs saying "We won't have a lake until our assessments are paid" and those members who have paid put "Paid in full" signs in front of their houses. But due to a lapse in establishing the covenants for the neighborhood Campbell said there is no way he can force the remaining 89 homeowners to pay.

Resident Frank Schiller is 73 years old and has lived on the lake since 1977. Retired and on a fixed income, Schiller hasn't paid the latest assessment and he says he has many questions about the Safe Dams Programs requirements, such as the 30 inch maximum precipitation level.

The biggest rain event in the state's history, in which the remnants of Hurricane Alberto hovered over the state in 1994, dumped only 24 inches of rain, he said.

"If I was trying to pump things up to get a big project I'd use those figures too," Schiller said.

And he also questioned the measurements made of the spillway by the association's engineer, saying the spillway is larger than the engineer claimed in his report. And he wonders why the amount of the assessment has risen so much since last year when it was about $500 for household.

"I'd like to see it fixed but I'm not paying $4,000," Schiller said.

The cost of the assessment rose because the price of steel and concrete went up, Campbell said.

"And with current trends it's going to go up more unless we get started," Campbell said.

Campbell added that, despite all the trouble, he thinks the Safe Dams Program is doing what it has to do, though he thinks the state should provide more assistance.

"The safety of human life is paramount," Campbell said. "I have a dam that, if it breaches, people downstream could die."

Work at the dam on Lake Cindy, located in the Lake Cindy subdivision off Ga. Highway 81 near Hampton, started about three years ago, said Lake Cindy Civic Club President Don Kown.

"It started out to be a simple situation that grew every time we had an inspection," Kown said. "Every time we submitted something, something else would be required (by the state)."

Kown said the engineering firm the club hired submitted its final piece of the plan to the state on Thursday, but he won't know the price of the work until they start taking bids.

The dam needs 350 feet of reinforced concrete and 570 feet of riprap across the top.

"We don't know where to go from here," Kown said.

Like Drakes Lake, the club has been required to lower the level of the lake until the repairs are finished. Kown said he's not sure why the dam qualifies as a Category I since the only residence in the flood plain is uninhabited.

Most large dams in the state are regulated by federal law and do not fall under the act, Woosley said. Some of the largest dams they do monitor are a 125 foot tall dam in Pickens County and a 110 foot dam near Macon.

By comparison, the Drakes Lake dam is 21 feet tall.

When construction at the Tussahaw Reservoir dam is complete in November or December it will be 70 feet tall and contain 1,650 acres of water, said Lindy Farmer, general with the Henry County Water Authority. That will be 9.8 billion gallons of storage at normal pool.

The designs for the dam had to pass through Woosley's department and it undergoes constant inspection.

"I'm out there about once a month," Woosley said.

Working with the Safe Dams Program has been no problem, Farmer said. The program engineers haven't requested any changes in the dam's design beyond the normal review process.

"They've been very responsive," Farmer said. "We've always had a good relationship."

The Tussahaw dam will be an earthen dam, but earthen dams are not intrinsically dangerous, Woosley said. In fact, 95 percent of the state's dams are made from Georgia's red clay.

"The Georgia red clay is good material for building dams and it's cheaper than using concrete," Woosley said.

A good dam should not become dangerous over time, Woosley said, so long as it's not neglected.

"It's like a home. As long as you maintain it they'll last a long, long time," Woosley said.

For more information on the Safe Dams Act, go to www.dnr.state.ga.us/dnr/environ.