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Mississippi county OKs plan to drain lake with failing dam

STARKVILLE, MS – Leaders in a Mississippi county approved a plan Thursday to drain a swollen lake where officials say a decades-old earthen dam could fail after days of heavy rain.

The Starkville Daily News reported that Oktibbeha County supervisors unanimously endorsed the proposal during a emergency meeting.

The process involves letting the Army Corps of Engineers pump water out of Oktibbeha County Lake. Workers would then demolish a structure called a riser that keeps water in the reservoir.

The lake has nearly doubled in size to about 900 acres (364 hectares) of surface area following heavy rains, and seepage through the earthen dam caused a landslide that threatens the entire structure. As much as 5 more inches of rain could fall over the area through the weekend, officials said.

No timetable for the work was announced immediately, but the dam has been categorized as hazardous for years and the county has been attempting to lower the level of the water, which normally is 30 feet (9 meters) deep in places.

Chuck Pritchard, the county engineer, said the level of the lake had dropped about 1 foot since Wednesday as rains abated, but he was worried about the potential for additional downpours.

The lake is about 10 miles (16 kilometers) northwest of Starkville, the home of Mississippi State University. A breach of the dam, which Pritchard said was built in the 1960s, would endanger about 130 properties and nine highways downstream.

Mississippi has one of the highest numbers of dams that pose dangers and are in poor or unsatisfactory condition, according to a two-year investigation by The Associated Press.

The Oktibbeha County Lake dam was rated “fair” the last time it was inspected in 2016. A February 2019 report made available to the AP noted ongoing seepage problems that the owners — the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors — said they lacked money to fix.

Pritchard said the county has been seeking money to repair deficiencies in the dam since a 2014 inspection, but the price tag is an estimated $8 million.