Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Why So Many Dams In Texas Are in Bad Condition

This picture of a dam that over-topped is used in dam safety workshops presented by the TCEQ.

Photo from TCEQ

This picture of a dam that over-topped is used in dam safety workshops presented by the TCEQ.

This is part one of a StateImpact Texas series devoted to looking at the infrastructure of dams in Texas, and what can be done to improve it. 

Of the 1,880 dams inspected by the TCEQ since 2008, 245 were found to be in bad condition, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Around 2,000 of the state’s dams were built with federal help in the wake of the great drought of the 1950s. Almost all of those are now past or nearing their projected 50-year lifespan, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Statistics like these don’t come as a surprise to the people who work with dams in the state of Texas.

“We’ve traveled and looked at different dams just to make sure that we do things right. And there’s a lot of dams that we did come across that would scare me to live downstream from them,” Troy Henderson, Chief of Lake Patrol for the Brownwood Water Improvement District, told StateImpact Texas this summer.

Part of Henderson’s job is maintaining the dam at Lake Brownwood, something he and his team take very seriously.

“Downstream is the population of Brownwood and Early, and if we have a dam failure it’s going to be catastrophic,” he said.

The challenges confronting the state’s infrastructure of dams is underscored by the fact that Texas has more than 7,300 dams, more than any other state. There is, in fact, only one natural lake in the entire state of Texas.

Troy Henderson, with the Brownwood Lake Patrol, shows where erosion has eaten at a dam's spillway.

Mose Buchele

Troy Henderson, with the Brownwood Lake Patrol, shows where erosion has eaten at a dam's spillway.

But many public safety officials and engineers say it’s difficult to get people to pay attention. Major floods continue to strike Texas periodically. Central Texas, for example, was just hit by flooding this weekend. But it’s the continuing drought that policymakers appear most concerned with.

But if Texas experiences the type of historic rain event that will likely be necessary to free it from drought, will the state’s infrastructure be prepared?  Many experts say no.

Wes Birdwell, a civil engineer, says the situation reminds him of the old tune “The Arkansas Traveler.”

“‘My roof doesn’t leak when it doesn’t rain,’ the old song says,” he told StateImpact Texas at his Austin office.

To explain the problem, Birdwell described a hypothetical dam.

“Say your great grandpa got home from World War I and he had an army surplus bulldozer,” Birdwell said. “And he bought this piece of property with his GI Bill. And he went and got his bulldozer and he scraped some dirt up, and he built a dam it’s been there for 80 years. He fished on it, and your dad fished on it. And there’s never been a problem.”

Then, one day a ranch downstream is sold to a developer. Houses start going up. And you start looking at that old dam a little differently. Now lives and property are at risk if it fails. And it’s your responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“Now suddenly, you’ve gotta spend all this money. That is a problem,” said Birdwell.

‘We Want to Fix This’

“There is no place for owners to go to go get money if they want to rehabilitate their dam,” Warren Samuelson, the manager of the Dam Safety Program with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told StateImpact Texas, when asked about the challenges his department faces.

Warren Samuelson is the Manager of the Dam Safety Program at the TCEQ.

Photo by Mose Buchele

Warren Samuelson is the Manager of the Dam Safety Program at the TCEQ.

Samuelson says about 60 percent of dams in the state are privately owned. Many of those owners couldn’t afford to rehabilitate their dams even if they wanted to.

“We have a lot of people call us and say ‘we want to fix this. But we have no money to do it,’’ Samuelson said. “And it’s not just [homeowner’s] associations. A lot of it is cities. A lot of their source of money could be taxation, but are you willing to tax people for additional funds? And it’s a political issue.”

Samuelson would like Texas to set up a fund that could aid cash-strapped dam owners. Of course, earmarking funds for that is political, too. And, so far, Texas lawmakers have been uninterested.

In the past, his division has also sought greater power to enforce dam upkeep, but Samuelson said those powers were not given to them by lawmakers.

So what reforms have legislators backed? This year, instead of beefing up enforcement, lawmakers reduced the number of dams that will be inspected. Something that engineer Wes Birdwell says could put lives and property at risk.

“Any time we decrease the size of the safety net, there’s probably reason for concern,” he told StateImpact Texas.

Learn more about that tomorrow in the second part of our series on the state of dams, in the state of Texas.

Comments

  • Mark McPherson

    Perhaps another issue here is how responsible should dam owners be of development that occurs on property they don’t own. Would it make sense to require the theoretical developer to investigate upstream watershed runoff facilities as part of the permit process, and maybe participate in the maintenance cost? Putting on my lawyer hat for a moment, let’s assume this dam failed and caused flooding damage to a few houses in a new development. Chances of them having flood insurance, inland, probably zero. And let’s assume the dam owner also has no insurance to cover the losses. I think the injured owners may have to consider suing the developer/builder under whatever tortured legal theories they can allege if there is no other possible source of recovery.

    Having represented buyers who were considering buying a property with a dam on it, and otherwise working with dams for clients, I’ve had to give due diligence advice concerning TCEQ obligations on dam owners. They can certainly include significant risk. And be unexpectedly expensive.

    • Mose Buchele

      Mark,

      Thanks for your comments. Funny, I was actually trying to seek out a lawyer’s voice on these issues, but the clock ran out on me. I’ll shoot you an email. As far as developers’ responsibility to investigate. In some cases the information about upstream dams could be kept from them. (hazard classifications, degree of upkeep, emergency action plans) under homeland security rules. As far as participating in maintenance, that sounds something like what Warren Samuelson was referring to. Thanks again for sharing. – Mose

  • http://westchestergasette.blogspot.com/ WCGasette

    Our state legislature appears to be somewhat useless when it comes to regulation of infrastructure, doesn’t it? What about all the oil and gas activities being conducted around public and private dams throughout our state? Especially with the proliferation of unconventional drilling that involves massive amounts of water rammed into the earth to extract the oil and/or gas? Thank you for writing about this major issue for our anti-regulation state.

    • EyesOfTX

      First, there is absolutely zero scientific evidence linking anything to do with oil and gas extraction to deterioration of dams, in Texas or anywhere else. Second, Texas’ infrastructure is in vastly better condition than avid, heavy-regulatory states like California and New York, so what argument are you actually attempting to make there? Or is the point of our reply not to offer coherent arguments, but to throw out red herrings in the hopes that otherwise uninformed readers will become concerned upon reading them?
      I’m betting on the latter.

      • http://westchestergasette.blogspot.com/ WCGasette

        EyesOfTX: Did you realize that our Railroad Commission of Texas had no idea that Chesapeake and XTO drilled and fracked within the federally mandated 3,000 FT. Exclusion Zone for USACE-controlled Dams? USACE didn’t know either. Nor did the city that OK’d the permits. That is the argument that is and has been made. If that is not a “coherent argument” then not sure what is. And so now you know. Being informed should make all of us very concerned.

        http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2011/09/07/gp-mayor-on-joe-pool-drilling-its-scary-as-hell/

        • EyesOfTX

          Again, what is your argument? Where is any evidence that anything CHK did in any way damaged a dam? The dam is at the surface – the frac job took place 7,000-10,000 ft below the surface. Where’s the connection? Why don’t you make any effort to make one?
          Answer: Because you can’t. Obviously.

          • Guest

            Oh, my. Sorry for the delay in responding. We are talking about the “potential” for a dam being compromised. Drilling and fracking creates seismicity: Vibrations. Vibrations cause earth movement This we know. We refuse to be rude back at you. But we do offer this “connection” for you. Be sure to read the part about the oil field adjacent to this masterpiece.

            http://westchestergasette.blogspot.com/2012/06/baldwin-hills-dam-failure-in-1963.html

          • http://westchestergasette.blogspot.com/ WCGasette

            Sorry for the delay in responding. We are talking about the
            “potential” for a dam being compromised. Drilling and fracking creates seismicity: Vibrations. Vibrations cause earth movement. This we know. We refuse to be rude back at you. But we do offer this “connection” for you. Be sure to read the part about the oil field adjacent to this masterpiece:

            http://westchestergasette.blogspot.com/2012/06/baldwin-hills-dam-failure-in-1963.html

      • Marc

        Actually, you are full of it and completely illiterate about this issue. In 1996, the Bureau of Land Management issued its Texas Resource Management Plan in which it recognized the potential destructive impact of frac’ing near dams. In the TRMP the BLM requires a minimum setback distance of 3,000 feet from any USACE-managed water control device (dam, spillway, levee, etc.) because of possible dam failure and catastrophic loss of life and property resulting from the sudden outrush of tens or hundreds of million gallons of water.

        The very act of frac’ing gas and oil wells, and using deep injection wells for wastewater disposal, has been proven to cause sinkholes and earthquakes which could potentially cause a ground subsidence problem under a dam footing resulting in catastrophic dam failure.

        USACE engineers flat out lied to me in telling me that they had not even considered that possibility when I asked them about it in 2010, but then immediately sent me a copy of the TRMP which clearly stipulated such concerns. Then, USACE sent letters to the Dallas and Grand Prairie City Councils asking for moratoriums on gas well drilling near the dam at Joe Pool Reservoir where Chesapeake energy had already drilled a gas well just 850 feet immediately below the spillway adjacent to residential neighborhoods.

        Not surprisingly, Chesapeake Energy refused a USACE request to halt all activities at that site. Grand Prairie complied with the USACE request for a moratorium, but Dallas did not. We were, however, able to successfully fight and oppose permits that would have allowed drilling in Dallas near the dam, so no wells have been drilled near the dam in Dallas.

        It is YOU who is the uninformed reader. You should try learning the facts before criticizing somebody else when they made correct and accurate statements. You can start by contacting the Fort Worth District of USACE and asking that they send you a copy of the TRMP so that you can read it for yourself, after which time you can come back and apologize for your flagrantly inflammatory and idiotic tirade against a person who knows far more about this issue than you ever will. Somehow, I doubt you will have enough integrity to even get and read the TRMP, much less admit that you were just dead wrong.

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