Owner, residents agree northeast Columbia earthen dam needs repairs

Tuesday, October 7, 2008 | 7:54 p.m. CDT; updated 10:23 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Trash and debris on the backside of the Welch Lake dam make it hard to inspect the dam for structural problems that can cause the dam to fail.

No one knows for sure whether it's right to blame a problematic earthen dam at Welch Lake for the flooding about a mile downstream on Hominy Branch where a 20-year-old woman drowned on Sept. 14.

No one can say for sure that the broken flood-control device and clogged spillways at the dam contributed to the high water downstream that Michelle Runkle waded into and disappeared in that night.

But John Esterly, who lives near the dam, says he feels terrible about Runkle's death because he couldn't get action taken on the dam's problems.

Those familiar with the dam agree something needs to be done to repair it. Danieal Miller, its owner, says he can't afford to fix it, nor does he think he should have to foot the bill.

The issue raises questions about stormwater control in Columbia and how to accommodate runoff from developments that are exhausting flood controls on streams.

The dam's flood-control device, which has been broken since 1997, allows the lake's level to be lowered prior to forecasted rain to make room for additional stormwater runoff.

With weather reports warning of extensive rain from Hurricane Ike that weekend, the lake's level could have been lowered, Esterly said. It's unclear if it could have prevented the overflow across the Clark Lane temporary road, which was built to divert traffic while a new bridge was constructed. The road remains closed for the construction.

"I think we could have helped, but I don't know if we could have prevented it," Esterly said.

The stream's flooding problem is exacerbated by runoff from a nearby golf course owned by The Links complex and dense development upstream, Esterly said.

On Sept. 14, Runkle drowned while attempting to rescue a man stranded in the creek near the bridge. The man, Chris Crocker, 23, clung to a golf cart bridge after driving his Mustang into the swiftly moving water.

The city found that a barricade that would have blocked Crocker's entry into the water had been moved.

Columbia Public Works spokeswoman Jill Stedem said the bridge's flooding had not been a problem in the past.

"The only information that we have is that this was the first time that we had closed the road because of water over the road," Stedem said.

On July 7, 1997, Esterly brought the dam's need of repair to the attention of the Boone County Commission during a public forum to discuss Miller's request to replat the property to develop Breezewood Estates. Miller bought the property in 1992 and now lives in Breezewood Estates.

At the time, Esterly spoke against the replat, which was later denied, on the basis that the development would make an already bad flash-flood problem worse. The meeting's minutes recorded Miller saying he couldn't pay for the repairs until he  developed the land.

Esterly said the dam, which abuts the southern edge of Esterly's yard, has been overtopped numerous times including the night of Sept. 14. As evidence of some of its problems, he points to the heavily wooded back side of the dam and the debris and driftwood clogging the primary and secondary spillways.

It wasn't always this bad, Esterly said. Before Miller purchased the property, a neighbor was able to let water out of the lake to make room for runoff from the expansive Hominy Branch watershed before big rains.

Boone County Commissioner Skip Elkin said Esterly has brought the dam's problems to his attention several times. His concerns are valid, Elkin said.

"The dam certainly needs maintaining, and the overflows are not functioning," he said. But the county's hands are tied because enforcing proper upkeep of the dam is out of its jurisdiction, he said.

It doesn't  fall under the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' regulations, either. The department only regulates dams 35 feet or taller. The Welch Lake dam is 22 feet tall.

In October 2005, Esterly told the department about the problems with the dam. An engineer, Robert Clay, was sent to inspect the dam. He found its spillways clogged with concrete rubble and brush and the dam covered in trees.

Clay consulted a 1981 study by the Army Corps of Engineers that found significant problems with the dam. None of the problems had been corrected in 2005. But he could only conduct a "cursory" inspection.

"The dam was so covered with trees that I couldn't really get a good look at it," Clay said.

Clay estimated that if the dam was regulated, it would be held to a Class 1 or high Class 2 downstream hazard classification. The department classifies dams based on the severity of the storm they are required to withstand and the hazard its failure poses to people downstream.

Class 1 is required to withstand the highest severity storm on the three-tier scale. The regulations for each class are aimed at keeping the dam from being overtopped. The Welch Lake dam does not meet the requirements of its classification. 

"If this were regulated (by the department), it wouldn't get a permit," Clay said.

But the dam falls out of the department's jurisdiction, so it's up to the property owner, Miller, to make sure it's safe.

"If you have an owner that's not going to maintain a dam like that then bad things are going to happen," Clay said.

Miller said he knows the dam has been in disrepair for years. He said he cleaned out and repaired the dam's secondary spillway about three years ago, but it needs a more extensive overhaul.  

"It either needs to go away, or be re-engineered," he said.

But he's unsure that if the dam had been functioning properly it would have made a significant difference with the downstream flooding.

“Would there have been less water? By definition, there would have been," Miller said. "Whether or not the reduction would have made a difference, I don’t know.”

Esterly has some ideas about how to pay for the dam's repairs. What can't be changed is Runkle's death. But he emphasizes that there are many factors that contributed to what happened at the creek.

"Hominy Creek flows through residential Columbia," Esterly wrote in an e-mail. "In this context, ignoring flood control is inviting loss of life and property."


Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Todd Menefee October 8, 2008 | 4:32 p.m.

There is no doubt that Miller needs to repair the dam and pay for it. He accepted responsibility in this quote: "Miller saying he couldn't pay for the repairs until he developed the land." OK, the land has been developed, now repair the dam like you promised. This issue needs to be pressed until action is taken. Who is to enforce the repair?

The tragic death, however, seems more linked to the fact that the Links tore out a bridge without immediately rebuilding it. The make-shift drive-around that was in place should NEVER have been allowed...let alone for a year! If the old bridge had still been in place, the creek would not have run over the road.

(Report Comment)
Jarrod Turner December 17, 2008 | 11:00 a.m.

And if it was fixed my friend Michelle would still be here with us likely...damn I miss her

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.