States­man probe prompts re­views of dams' safety

Leg­is­la­tors per­plexed over death stan­dards; Austin to look at is­sue.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Ralph K.M. Hau­r­witz

Key mem­bers of the Leg­is­la­ture and the mayor of Austin say they are look­ing into the safety and reg­u­la­tion of dams af­ter an Amer­i­can-States­man in­ves­ti­ga­tion that re­vealed short­com­ings.

“We will re­visit the is­sue deal­ing with dam in­fra­struc­ture and make sure we’re not putting peo­ple at risk,” said state Rep. Lyle Lar­son, chair­man of the House Com­mit­tee on Nat­u­ral Re­sources. “We need to look if there’s a real and present dan­ger to peo­ple and take cor­rec­tive ac­tion if we’ve got dams that are sub­stan­dard.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the States­man’s re­port “raised a lot of good ques­tions.” He added, “Dam safety is not a pol­icy area that this coun­cil has tack­led thus far. The (in­terim city) man­ager is go­ing to look into it and tell us whether any coun­cil ac­tion is needed and, if so, make a rec­om­men­da­tion to coun­cil.”

The States­man found that sev-

eral hun­dred dams up­stream of pop­u­lated ar­eas, in­clud­ing six in Austin and oth­ers in Cen­tral Texas, could be breached in a worstcase flood, putting lives and prop­erty in peril from mas­sive amounts of pre­vi­ously im­pounded wa­ter rush­ing down­stream.

And in a sharp de­par­ture from na­tional norms, the Texas Com­mis­sion on En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity ap­plies stricter safety stan­dards to dams whose fail­ure would be ex­pected to cost seven or more lives than it does to those whose col­lapse could pos­si­bly kill up to six peo­ple.

What’s more, the Legis- la­ture in 2013 ex­empted more than 3,200 pri­vately owned dams in ru­ral ar­eas from safety re­quire­ments, in­clud­ing 231 in the up-tosix-deaths cat­e­gory.

Lar­son, a Repub­li­can from San An­to­nio, said of the dif­fer­ing stan­dards based on the num­ber of pos­si­ble deaths: “Ob­vi­ously, we need to re­visit that. The stan­dards should be looked at from the stand­point of min­i­miz- ing loss of life.”

State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lub­bock, who leads the Agri­cul­ture, Wa­ter and Ru­ral

rs Com­mit­tee, agreed. “I didn’t know that stan- dard ex­isted,” he said. “I’m go­ing to get to the heart of it. No one life is more valu- able than an­other.

“I don’t think the state has pri­or­i­tized (dam safety) at the high­est level,” Perry said. “I think Hur­ri­cane Harvey has got­ten at­ten­tion to it. The ur­gency is there.”

Rep. Gar­net Cole­man, D-Hous­ton, who chairs the House Com­mit­tee on County Af­fairs, agreed that Harvey, In ad­di­tion, Wat­son said, which dumped 50 inches of storm stan­dards and “cre- rain on parts of Texas and at ive me c hani s ms” for dam­aged 20 dams, was a pro­tect­ing life and prop- wake-up call. erty should be part of a

“We as a state have to wide-rang­ing re­view. One learn that it’s not busi­ness such mech­a­nism might be a as usual when it comes to re­volv­ing loan pro­gram for flood events,” said Cole- dam im­prove­ments sim­i­lar man, adding that the ex­emp- to an ex­ist­ing one for flood tions and the weaker stan- plan­ning. dards for some po­ten­tially “We ought to be ask­ing, deadly dams are dis­turb­ing ‘Do we let peo­ple move and war­rant re­view. “If the in be­low cer­tain types of in­fra­struc­ture can­not proin­fras­truc­ture? Does that tect peo­ple, it’s some­thing mean we’d be giv­ing landthat must be fixed.” use au t hor­ity in places

Sen. Kirk Wat­son, D-Auswe’ve never al­lowed it in tin, said he of­ten feels like the past?’ ” Wat­son said. “the sen­a­tor in flood al­ley” Ata min­i­mum, Perry said, be­cause of the propen­sity peo­ple who buy homes and for mas­sive del­uges along other prop­erty should be the edge of the Hill Coun- ad­vised be­fore­hand if they try. “Harvey cre­ates a high- would be in the po­ten­tial lighted aware­ness of cer- in­un­da­tion zone if a dam tain types of needs if we failed. “De­vel­op­ers can’t pay at­ten­tion,” he told the kee p p u t t ing peop le in States­man. “Your ar­ti­cle harm’s way with­out a huge helps us pay at­ten­tion.” ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram,” he

Wat­son said “it kind of said. turned my gut” when he The city of Austin has 32 read about the dif­fer­ent high-haz­ard dams. Of those, stan­dards de­pend­ing on 11 meet state stan­dards and the num­ber of po­ten­tial did not need up­grad­ing. The deaths. “With­out cast­ing city spent about $5 mil­lion as­per­sions on past de­ci­sions, to up­grade four oth­ers in let’s talk about the sort of re­cent years and is de­sign- stan­dards we want in the ing im­prove­ments on two fu­ture,” he said. more. Four are sched­uled for pre­lim­i­nary en­gi­neer­ing work be­gin­ning in two to six years. But 11 oth­ers have yet to be eval­u­ated.

Adler said he has asked the in­terim city man­ager, Elaine Hart, “to let me and the coun­cil know whether we should be do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ently than we’re do­ing now.”

What con­sti­tutes a worstcase flood for dam-de­sign pur­poses might be a mov­ing tar­get as a re­sult of global warm­ing, said John Nielsen-Gam­mon, the state cli­ma­tol­o­gist and a Texas A&M Univer­sity pro­fes­sor of at­mo­spheric sciences.

“And as the cli­mate con­tin­ues to warm, the amount of mois­ture that can go into a storm is go­ing up,” Nielsen-Gam­mon said. “So cli­mate change is mak­ing cur­rent es­ti­mates of prob­a­ble max­i­mum pre­cip­i­ta­tion ob­so­lete in the fu­ture. That’s rel­e­vant for dams be­cause when you’re de­sign­ing a dam you want it to last a long time. You want it to with­stand fu­ture rains and not just past rains.”


Con­struc­tion work­ers build a dam at a hike-and-bike trail in Round Rock in Oc­to­ber. “I don’t think the state has pri­or­i­tized (dam safety) at the high­est level,” a law­maker said.

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