How Safe Are Mississippi Dams?

JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) — We’ve seen dams fail recently in South Carolina and we’ve seen it here in Mississippi over the years. When a dam breaks, the damage can be extraordinary. The reason for breaks vary, but one thing is constant — every state, except Alabama, requires that dams be inspected for safety. After sorting through hundreds of pages of information and talking to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, WJTV found that Mississippi isn’t conducting those inspections. Instead, they’ve left it up to the dam owner.

Dusty Myers in the Dam Safety Division of MDEQ says, “Part of the reason for that at the time was we had contract inspectors and limited resources in staffing and felt like that was a better model to go to at the time.” Dams can be owned by cities or town, homeowners associations or individuals. The dams must be inspected by a registered, professional engineer every 1-5 years.

In 2008, Rob Malone served on the homeowner’s association board at Country Place subdivision in Pearl. That year, Malone found out that the Spring Lake spillway was collapsing due to years of water flowing through cracks in the concrete. Malone says, “The effect on the value of the homes in the neighborhood if we didn’t rebuild the lake would have been catastrophic.”

According to Myers, the problem was, primarily, trees along the slope of the dam, concrete failure, and structural failure of the spillway. Malone says he’s glad inspections were left up to the subdivision, “If we pay more taxes I’m sure they could hire inspectors to do that. But I think it’s better. I think it’s a better way of doing it to give requirements and parameters and let the homeowners of wherever the lake is or dam or levee hire people to do it or do it themselves. I think that’s a much more cost efficient way.”

The more than 3,200 dams in Mississippi are primarily owned by individuals. That means the owner is not only paying for the inspection but is also paying for any repairs that must be made. There is no state or federal aid to help pay for those inspections, which means most people have to take out a loan. Country Place Homeowner’s Association struggled to find a bank that would loan them the $350,000 to repair Spring Lake. They did get the money and are still paying it back.

Myers calls the Spring Lake repair a success story, but also says that’s not always the case. The owner gets to decide when repairs are made and there’s no penalty if the repairs aren’t made in a timely manner or at all. The only thing MDEQ can do is lower the lake to a safe level.

That brings up the issue of danger. Dams are divided into 3 categories – high risk, significant risk, and low risk. High risk means a dam breach could cause a loss of life and damage to homes or businesses.

During the recent flooding in North and South Carolina, 21 people died. In South Carolina, at least 14 dams failed and officials monitored 70 other dams. Here in Mississippi, Myers says all dams are earthen and can handle 40-48 inches of rainfall. That means over-topping may not be a problem, but Myers says slides could be, “While I can’t say without a doubt there wouldn’t be any issues, any of our dams that are in compliance should be able to handle that amount of rainfall without any problems.”

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