The Legislature and Congressional Delegations of Oklahoma should explore all options available to help address the growing challenge facing the state from aging dams and the increasing number of "high-hazard" flood control dams, especially in times of increasingly tight state budgets, according to a recent report from the Oklahoma Conservation Commission and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. According to the report, many of the dams that are now classified as high-hazard were originally built as low hazard dams, but now must be upgraded to this higher status because of the construction of homes and businesses below them.
"Oklahoma has over 199 dams that were originally constructed as low-hazard sites that now have been up graded to high-hazard because of development below them," said Trey Lam, President of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts (OACD). "Because of this we now have to rehabilitate these sites to make them comply with state dam safety requirements for high-hazard dams, a process that can cost around $1 million per dam on average. Thatís a lot of money during these tight times." The report, released on December 22 of last year, was authorized by the passage of House Bill 1884 by State Representative Phil Richardson and State Senator Ron Justice. This legislation directed the Oklahoma Conservation Commission and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board to make recommendations on actions that might be taken to reduce the number of low-hazard dams that are reclassified to high-hazard dams due to downstream construction. The bill also directed the agencies to formulate a public education plan to inform the general public and officials on the safety risks associated with building below a low-hazard dam and to explore all funding options that might be available for the upkeep and rehabilitation of dams and levees located in the state. Findings of the report included the need for mapping the breach inundation area below all dams in the state; the need for additional funding for rehabilitating dams that have reached their design life, are in need of repair, or that have their hazard status changed due to downstream construction; and the need for additional educational materials and outreach to those living below dams or who are planning to build on property below dams. According to Lam, all of these recommendations have one thing in common- money.
"Whether it is mapping breach areas below dams, fixing dams, or providing material to people below dams, all of this takes funding," Lam said. "The legislature has been very aggressive these last few years in providing funding for rehabilitating dams in Oklahoma, especially in response to the record storms we saw in 2007. Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the next 10 years, Oklahoma will have over 1,000 dams that will be past their design life and be in need of attention. In the meantime, we will continue to see more and more dams re-classified as high-hazard structures because someone built a building in the breach area below them, which is happening at a rate of around 30 per year. By law we will have to fix these dams first and at the cost of $1 million on average to do it, we will never be able to get to the old dams that need the most attention. We can change the law on what a high-hazard dam is in Oklahoma, but that too can cost money if we do it in a way that puts federal funds in jeopardy. What it boils down to is that we have to find a way to protect the citizens of the state, and the only way to do that is to make sure we have the funds adequate for the job."
According to Clay Pope, Executive Director of OACD, that may be hard to do in a year of record budget shortfalls at the State Capitol.
"We are very concerned that funding for dam inspection and repair will take a hit in this upcoming legislative session," Pope said. "With the passage of the conservation bond last year, the state made a strong commitment to dam repair. Unfortunately, this money only dealt with the damage from the storms of 2007 and none of these funds went to pay for the people required to do the work on the ground. We received funds for rehabilitation, but not the personnel necessary to do the routine maintenance or inspections of our 2,100 plus dams. Even with the stimulus funds we have been able to secure, we still are running a race against time on these dams, especially if budget cuts mean we have to let go the state personnel and conservation district personnel we depend on to keep these dams in working order. The bottom line is, if we donít have the people to do that work, we canít guarantee the safety of the public. We hope that message is heard loud and clear at the Capitol this spring."