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Editorial: In Virginia, we ignore aging dams at our peril

Editorial: In Virginia, we ignore aging dams at our peril

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MG Little River Dam 020719

The Little River Dam near the New River.

In September 2018, the impending arrival of Hurricane Florence prompted the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to take action.

In an advisory to dam owners, officials warned that the storm could dump 10 to 20 inches of rain in some areas of the commonwealth if it were to linger. DCR urged owners to connect with engineers to understand specific issues with their structures; find and review their emergency action plans (if one was in place); safely lower water levels in their dams’ lakes (if possible); and visually inspect their dams to ensure that debris would not negatively impact any spillways.

Three years later, Hurricane Ida posed its own set of severe-weather challenges. On Sept. 3 — days after the storm’s initial arrival in Virginia — DCR issued an alert to homeowners and even renters to secure flood insurance in time for peak hurricane season. Officials cautioned that standard policies likely do not cover flood-related issues, and that 1 inch of water in a 2,500-square-foot home could result in more than $25,000 in damage.

The commonwealth was spared the worst of Florence’s and Ida’s wrath. But both of these memos raise the question: Do we react to crises as they happen — or worse, after the fact? Or do we make investments now to shore up vulnerabilities in aging dams? We ignore them at our peril — Virginia has to prioritize them in its infrastructure improvements.

Healthy dams are an essential piece of our everyday lives. Per DCR, they support water supply, irrigation, recreation, hydropower, fish and wildlife habitat, and flood reduction systems. But far too many of Virginia’s structures don’t meet that “healthy” bar.

The National Inventory of Dams, a database operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, shows that as of 2018, the average age of structures in the commonwealth was 56. In its 2021 infrastructure report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers cited 356 Virginia dams as carrying a high hazard status. That means if they were to fail, there would be a probable loss of life or serious economic damage, DCR explains.

Fairfax County’s Office of Emergency Management outlines reasons why a dam could fail: overtopping sparked by flooding that exceeds a dam’s capacity, structural failures involving construction materials, poor maintenance and upkeep, and more. And all of those aforementioned causes require resources, whether in the form of money, labor, goods or other needs.

But dams are especially hard to manage in Virginia for two reasons. First, ownership varies between public and private entities. While state officials can regulate the build, design and servicing of a dam, and establish criteria for compliance, not every owner has the resources to make necessary upgrades. A majority of the 2,500-plus regulated dams in the commonwealth are private, DCR noted in May.

Second, as climate change brings forth more high-powered storms, state officials’ attempts to assess or improve existing dams — or even identify new ones — face an uphill battle.

The National Inventory of Dams features an interactive map showcasing the location of structures across the U.S. Under the “select a measure” prompt, the first option is “dams by hazard potential.” The map then becomes color-coded: Red means high, yellow means significant (a failure might cause loss of life or appreciable economic damage), and green means low (no expected loss of life or sizable damage, other than to the owner’s property).

But a good portion of Virginia dams uniquely are coded black in the database, meaning their hazard status is undetermined. In a September 2019 interview with RTD Opinions, Russ Baxter, then-deputy director of soil and water conservation and dam safety and floodplain management for DCR, explained that these structures might not have been reached by staff members, or information from the owner still might be needed.

A September 2020 Virginia Mercury report added that there’s a colonial twist behind private dam challenges in Virginia. The piece pointed to a 2013 research paper by Jill Fraley of the Washington and Lee University School of Law explaining the property quandary.

“Through a mechanism called King’s Grants, some Virginia landowners hold title not simply to property surrounding a navigable waterway, but also to the soil beneath the river and to dams crossing the river,” Fraley wrote.

Along with this historical quirk, DCR currently lists only four regional dam safety engineers on staff, with one vacancy. In 2018, Gov. Ralph Northam issued Executive Order 24, which was aimed at “increasing Virginia’s resilience to sea level rise and natural hazards.” Part of that directive included a “review of compliance with flood protection and dam safety laws.”

A July 2019 report addressing the executive order concluded: “With the potential for more frequent and heavier precipitation events, the Dam Safety Program must be more robust to protect the lives and property of Virginians.” That has to include more staff members.

Congress recently has upped federal involvement in the issue, with the July introduction of the Twenty-First Century Dams Act. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials supports the $21.1 billion bill as a step toward improved “safety, grid resilience benefits and power-generating capacity.”

Within the American Society of Civil Engineers’ infrastructure report card categories, several items have received great attention through recent COVID-19 relief and recovery programs, including broadband, stormwater and drinking water. As hurricane season continues through the end of November, we ignore aging dams at our peril. Virginia has to prioritize them in its infrastructure improvements.

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