Any place there's a lake in Virginia, there's something holding back the water. At Lake Drummond in the Dismal Swamp or Mountain Lake near Blacksburg, it's a natural process. Everywhere else, there's a dam, and every place that has a dam has a potential for damage if it fails.
Regulations to prevent that damage have become a source of frustration as the state has attempted to register more dams in the state.
Owners of small dams say the costs of compliance are prohibitive, and the state has not offered sufficient funding to help. Local officials in Hanover County say more emphasis on high-hazard or significant-hazard dams would serve overall public safety better than the current policy of regulating all dams of a certain size, including low-hazard dams that pose minimal risk if they fail.
Legislation supported by Hanover would deal with the situation by reverting to pre-2001 definitions of the size of dams that require certification. That would remove more than half of the state's dams from regulation, including 24 high-hazard dams and 193 significant-hazard dams, according to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages dam safety.
Sen. Ryan T. McDougle, R-Hanover, introduced the bill and has been working with the DCR on possible amendments. The bill has been assigned to the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources, which meets today.
Dam-safety legislation in 2001 required regulation of any dam that's 25 feet high or impounds 50 acre- feet of water. Formerly a dam had to meet both criteria to be regulated. In 2008, another change required mapping of inundation zones for regulated dams. After the map is filed with a county zoning office, anyone who builds within the zone has to pay half of the cost of any upgrades to the dam that are required because the downstream development has increased the dam's hazard rating.
Sharing costs would benefit owners impacted by future development. Those who are faced with changes because of development that's already occurred can be faced with spending thousands of dollars to map inundation zones and potentially thousands more to make improvements. Without any possibility of funding, some owners have opted to lie low and hope no one notices.
"It would financially put me under," said one owner who did not want to be identified because he did not want to draw attention to his dam. "I'm trying to come up with a game plan on what to do with the situation I have."
Erik Allen of Watershed Consulting estimated that engineering and construction fees to repair the man's dam would be $175,000 or more. Breaching the dam instead could cost $40,000. If a full restoration of the old stream channel is required, the cost of breaching the dam could be higher than the cost of repairing it, Allen said.
Of the 1,568 dams identified by the state as needing regulation, only 656 have certificates, according to the DCR. Virginia has 162 high-hazard dams, 382 significant-hazard dams and 1,024 low-hazard dams on the state database.
"Everybody agrees that high-safety-hazard dams need to have regulated plans," McDougle said. "The question is the low-safety-hazard dams, which is the majority of the dams that are regulated at all. The cost to come up with a plan is prohibitively expensive, in excess of $20,000 and sometimes $30,000.
"There is a way to get that done at significantly cheaper cost to localities and individual dam owners. We're trying to make sure that [we] come up with a plan that protects individual's revenues and make sure we're protecting the safety of the citizens as well."
Virginia officials and the project manager of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials contend that the redefinition would move Virginia out of the national mainstream and increase safety risks.
"Most states follow the model and do regulate dams based on the current criteria Virginia has," said Mark Ogden, project manager for the national association. "There are many instances of smaller dams that failed and caused lots of damage." He said he was not aware of any other states trying to eliminate dams from jurisdiction. "Most states are trying to work the other way."
Dams in Virginia are divided into categories based on the damage that a failure would cause, not on the condition of the dam. If loss of life or serious economic damage is likely to occur in a break, the dam is classified as high hazard. If loss of life or appreciable economic damage is possible, the dam poses a significant hazard. If damage would be minimal, the dam is low hazard.
Hanover Public Works Director J. Michael Flagg said the county supports dam safety, good dam maintenance and good operation. The county wants to "right-size" the state's regulatory authority so the state's four regional dam safety engineers can "focus on the large and therefore priority dam structures." Local authorities would continue to regulate engineering, construction and environmental considerations for new or modified small dams.
Relaxing the regulation also would help local public safety staff during a large natural disaster such as a tropical storm, Flagg said. Officers could focus on higher priority areas, he said, instead of getting reports from dozens of smaller dams that would have little impact on already flooded roads even if the dam broke.
In Tropical Storm Gaston in 2004, Flagg said, the dams that failed in Hanover had marginal consequences. "There was a lot of flooding consequences, but they were caused by rain and not by failure of the dam."
Rainer Dam, which was visible from Williamsville Road near Studley, was one of those that washed out in the storm. Even though the road would already be flooded during a 13- to 14-inch rainstorm such as Gaston and damage to the road was not appreciably increased because of the dam break, Flagg said that if the Rainer Estates dam existed today, it probably would be reclassified as a significant hazard and require expensive upgrades because the public road is there.
"Flooding is clearly a public safety concern, and we need to be concerned about these issues on a broader scale, particularly during large storms," Flagg said.
Scott Cahill, director of field operations for Watershed Services Inc. in Ashland, said part of the problem lies in the strict interpretation of dam-safety regulations by the DCR.
"If the dam doesn't fail, the water [on the road after a catastrophic storm] is 50 feet; if the dam does fail, it's 51 feet. I don't really see a difference if the guy is 50 feet under water or 51 feet under water," Cahill said.
Cahill said he's "very aggressively pro safe dams," but the costs are so high that the state has to get financially involved.
"It's over $200 million to get all the dams in the state safe to a responsible level to ensure that in storms we aren't killing people with our dams," he said. "I hope that the state will spend the money needed to assist dam owners to bring dams up to a level of safety that would be acceptable. It is an issue of public safety. The problem was not initiated by owners of dams. It's initiated by developers who built in areas that were once far off in the woods.
"Generally we are being unfair to people with small and medium dams that don't have high hazard but being incredibly reasonable to people with big dams that would cause incredible problems."
One of those big high-hazard dams is the T. Nelson Elliott Dam, which impounds drinking water for the city of Manassas. After years of operating on a conditional permit, the dam will be upgraded in an $11 million project that should go out for bids by the end of March, said Mike Moon, director of public works and utilities for Manassas. The state has contributed $5 million to the project.
From Cahill's perspective, applying the same set of regulations to a small-dam owner and a large municipal dam is unfair.
"T. Nelson Elliott could potentially kill 5,000, destroy [the Manassas] airport, maybe shut down a portion of Northern Virginia for weeks or months.
"This guy's dam could fail in the night, and no one would know.
"They're treating the dams identically."
Money to help owners of small dams make repairs has been scarce. The state had a total of $25,000 available in 2009. Another round of grants will be available in early spring, said Gary Waugh, DCR spokesman, but he didn't know how much.
"There are states that regulate dams very effectively," Ogden said from the perspective of the national association. New Jersey, California and Pennsylvania are examples.
"Those states have placed a priority on dam safety. They have sufficient staff to do inspections. They have funds in place to assist dam owners with grants or low-interest loans in repairing dams. They take whatever actions are necessary to make sure that dam owners are complying."
New Jersey has $13 million in its Dam Restoration Loan Program for a total of 217 high-hazard dams, 339 significant-hazard dams and 248 low-hazard dams, Ogden said. Pennsylvania has $53 million in grants for publicly owned dams, and the legislature is considering a loan program for private dams similar to New Jersey. Pennsylvania has 852 high-hazard, 313 significant-hazard and 381 low-hazard dams.
Cahill said he sees the problem in Virginia as more of interpretation and implementation than regulations. And he's still not convinced that large dams have made the needed improvements.
"The first problem is, a dam is going to break in Virginia and kill a lot of people," he said. "You run around screaming that for 20 years before it happens. It's such a huge loss.
"Second, in trying to do the right thing, the state has made it such a burden on the small-dam owner that almost no one is going to tolerate it."