May 19, 2011

Board of Public Works discusses funding for future dam repairs

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

Brighton Dam on the Patuxent River.

Brighton Dam on the Patuxent River.

While unusually heavy rains are causing minor flooding in Maryland and overwhelming dams and levees along the Mississippi River basin, Maryland Department of the Environment officials assured the Board of Public Works Wednesday they are working to ensure that the more than 400 dams across the state stay solid.

Many Marylanders are surprised at the number of dams there are in the state, said Jay Sakai, director of the Environment Department’s Water Management Administration. Many of the state’s recreational lakes, he said, are created by dams that are somewhere downstream.

The Department of the Environment is responsible for regulating dams, inspecting them on a regular basis, and trying to find issues before they become problems and cause damage.

A report earlier this year by the Maryland section of the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state’s dams a rating of “C”.

The civil engineers said Maryland is doing better than most states in inspecting and repairing its dams, despite a lack of dedicated funding. But they said the Department of the Environment “does not have enough resources to fully perform its dam safety duties” and needs more authority to require owners to have plans to repair dams.

When a problem is found in a dam, often government entities, private homeowners, or homeowners’ associations have to foot the bill.

“It’s not inexpensive,” Sakai said. “A typical dam repair cost is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The state ranks dams based on how severe damage would be if they failed. Sakai made it clear that these rankings have nothing to do with the actual condition of the dams themselves.

The most critical dams, which are inspected annually, are dubbed “high hazard dams.” Sakai said that if these dams fail, it is highly likely that there would be significant loss of property and life. Many of these have homes located in the area where water would go if the dam failed – though most newer homes are not built in places where they may be impacted by dams. Sakai said there are 71 of these dams in the state. Most of them are owned by government entities, and there are currently about six that are undergoing repairs now.

“Significant hazard dams” would do quite a lot of property damage if they failed, but would be unlikely to result in any deaths, Sakai said. “Low hazard dams” are the least likely to cause major problems if they fail.

Sakai explained options to get funds for dam repairs to the Board of Public Works – made up of Gov. Martin O’Malley, Comptroller Peter Franchot, and Treasurer Nancy Kopp – on Wednesday. Franchot said that the board had been talking about the cost of dam repairs at a previous meeting.

“In these tough times, we want to come up with a solution that will pay for itself,” Franchot said.

There are a few ways to get funding for dam repairs now, Sakai said. There is a Clean Water Revolving Fund, and he said that dam projects qualify for using that money because they prevent sediment from polluting the states waterways. There is also a linked deposit program, which allows for a lower interest rate loan through the Department of the Environment’s Water Quality Financing Administration.

But there has also been casual talk of beginning a revolving fund just for dam repair, which Sakai said could be a good option because that money could be readily available when it is needed.

Sakai said the state does not have many dams that are in poor condition right now, but infrastructure always ages and begins to deteriorate over time.

“As the dams age, it will be a growing problem,” he said.