- The Washington Times - Friday, December 28, 2001

RICHMOND (AP) About 40 of the 500 state-regulated dams in Virginia need between $20 million and $40 million in repairs, and about 800 more dams many of which also need fixing will come under state supervision July 1.
Ron Hamm, Virginia's secretary of natural resources, said few people worry about dam safety until a tragedy occurs.
"It's sort of like terrorism two years ago," Mr. Hamm said.
In some cases, people living below the dams are not aware of the danger to them and their homes.
If a flood swamped the Lake Shawnee Dam in eastern Powhatan County, for instance, Bill Dunbar's home could get swept away and perhaps Mr. Dunbar with it.
The house sits in the path of the dam's emergency spillway below it, where floodwater would run if the main spillway could not handle the flow.
Mr. Dunbar did not know his predicament until Jonathan T. Phillippe, Virginia's dam-safety director, knocked on the door of his modest, gray frame home recently and told him.
Mr. Phillippe, a 62-year-old civil engineer, said that Mr. Dunbar knows his chances now.
"He's willing to take that risk," Mr. Phillippe said. "That's OK."
No state, federal, and as far as Mr. Phillippe can tell, local law requires people to be told they are living, or buying a house, in a potentially dangerous spot below a dam. Many live so far below a dam they don't see it or know it threatens them.
Tools such as improved computer simulations helped Virginia officials discover problems at many dams in the past two years, Mr. Phillippe said.
Virginia's most dangerous dams are among those the state has regulated for years. At the top of the list is the 43-foot-tall Big Cherry Dam, owned by Big Stone Gap in Southwest Virginia and located just north of the town.
Concrete in the dam is deteriorating, and studies show the dam may fail in a "probable maximum storm." That term, a benchmark in dam safety, means a storm so huge it might occur once every 500 to 10,000 years or tomorrow.
When a big storm approaches, people below potentially dangerous dams are alerted and may be told to evacuate, Mr. Phillippe said. Still, some people might refuse to go, or they could miss the alert.
If a huge flood hit the Big Cherry Dam, Mr. Phillippe said, "There are people downstream who could be swept away."
The Summit Dam near Winchester also poses a problem. The dam's main spillway is not large enough to pass a lot of water in a big storm. That means water could rush across the top of the earthen dam, eroding it and causing it to burst.
That nearly happened in 1972, when water from Hurricane Agnes rose almost to the top of the 102-foot dam.
"People live immediately downstream, and development pressure is coming that way, so we are concerned about getting that dam fixed, " Mr. Phillippe said. "It is a serious situation."
The dam is owned by the Lake Holiday Country Club, a homeowners' association.
When dams break, the results can be deadly and costly.
In 1995, torrential rains burst the Timberlake Dam in Campbell County, killing two persons downstream in the flooding. The dam, which was state-regulated and in good shape, was rebuilt at a cost of nearly $1 million. Residents of Timberlake paid for the work, said Craig Brewer, president of the Timberlake Homeowners' Association.
During Hurricane Floyd in 1999, floods broke open at least 12 dams in eastern Virginia. One of those failures, at the Cow Creek Dam near Gloucester, temporarily closed state Route 14. Rebuilding the dam cost about $160,000.
All of those dams were unregulated. No one was hurt.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide