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Report: North Carolina Has Country's Second-Largest Collection Of Poorly Maintained Dams

Hideaway Bay dam
Lisa Worf
The lake in east Charlotte where Hideaway Bay dam is located.

North Carolina has the country’s second-largest collection of poorly maintained dams built in places where a failure could kill people. That’s according to reporting from The Associated Press that looked at the condition of dams across the United States. 

The AP found more than 1,600 of them located throughout the country. Fifteen of those dams are in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties. They include Hideaway Bay dam in east Charlotte, which is surrounded by apartments and homes. David Lieb of The Associated Press reported the story. He joins WFAE's Morning Edition host Lisa Worf. 

Lisa Worf: So how big of a risk do these dams pose?

David Lieb: Well, that really will vary by the dam. All of these dams that we located here, 1,688 of these are described as "high hazard." And that means that if they were to fail, loss of life is likely. However, that designation doesn't indicate whether that loss of life would be one home or 1,000 people. To do that, you really have to dig in deeper and look at what are called an "emergency action plan" for the dam. That's a document that lays out what would happen if the dam were to fail. Interestingly enough, some of those documents are not publicly available in North Carolina.

Worf: So how does the public evaluate whether there's a risk, then, of a dam failure close by?

A screen grab from an investigative story by The Associated Press shows dams considered risky in the Charlotte area.

Lieb: Well, there's the challenge, right? Without knowing what those emergency action plans say, it's hard to know if when a dam fails, it would release water that would come into your neighborhood. Initially, North Carolina was providing us with these documents. But as we moved along in our project, something changed. And more recently, we were told from the state that emergency action plans were a closed record under North Carolina law. They've interpreted these plans to contain public security information. So we have emergency action plans for some, but not all of the dams that are high hazard in the state.

Worf: So based on the plans that you have, what is the most problematic dam in North Carolina?

Lieb: That is, unfortunately, something I cannot say definitively -- which one is the most problematic. But I can point out an example of some things that have happened in the past. For example, from 2015 to 2016, there were some severe storms and hurricanes that affected the area in North Carolina and South Carolina combined, there were more than 90 dams that failed during that roughly one-year time period.

Worf: And a lot of these were in and around the Columbia area and eastern North and South Carolina?

Lieb: That's right. They were. And many of those were what were described as "low-hazard" dams. They failed. They washed out. Some of them brought a flood downstream and knocked out yet another dam. But no one's lives were lost in that event. And we talked to some national experts about this. There's a guy out at Stanford University who runs the National Performance of Dams Program. And he said basically that those dam failures were expected and not surprising because these dams were not designed to hold the quantity of water that came at them in an extreme rainfall event.

Worf: And after those failures of dams back in 2015 and 2016, North Carolina did step up its oversight. Has that made any difference?

Lieb: Well, yes, North Carolina is actually one of the leading states, you might say, in amount of money and effort in putting in its dam safety program. The data we compiled from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers showed that North Carolina's budget for its dam safety program was about $1.2 million back in 2011, and that's grow into $2.3 million now. That's about an 88% increase.

Meanwhile, the number of personnel on this dam safety program has increased from about 15 to 20. South Carolina has done much the same after the series of failures it had in 2015 and '16. It increased its dam safety budget from about $260,000 to more than $1 million, and it's tripled the amount of staff it has in its dam safety program. So, to the extent that those states have a large number of dams that are high hazard and in poor or unsatisfactory condition, they also have been responding to that by increasing their efforts at inspections and their efforts to try to get these dams repaired.

Worf: Now, a lot of these dams are privately owned. So how far does this oversight extend?

Lieb: Well, that is a good point. And, in fact, if you look at North Carolina and South Carolina combined, of these high-hazard dams in poor or unsatisfactory condition, 90% of them are privately owned. And what that means is that a state inspector or a state regulatory agency can send them a letter, can say, "We found a problem with your facility. It needs to be fixed." And after that, they have to depend on the private dam owner to actually do something, themselves. And sometimes these owners don't have the resources to make the repairs. They either don't have enough money or they're not willing to spend enough money to make a repair that's needed.

Worf: The reporting in North Carolina mentions one dam in Wilkes County, the Al Beshears dam, and it's about 15 miles away from North Wilkesboro. And state inspectors there came out earlier this year and said, "Hey, you need to prevent a possible failure by draining the lake behind it."

Lieb: Right. And that is something that actually inspectors have pointed out for several years in a row. And that's the solution that they came up with. Essentially, if you're not going to fix it, then drain this lake. Right. Unfortunately, that is one of the cases where it's hard to know what's coming of that. The AP was not able to get in touch with the owner of that private dam. And as far as we know, nothing yet has been done there.

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.