Statesman probe prompts reviews of dams' safety
Legislators perplexed over death standards; Austin to look at issue.
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.