Keeping up earthen dams can be costly for owners

Tuesday, December 9, 2008 | 7:52 p.m. CST; updated 11:02 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 9, 2008

COLUMBIA — Help is hard to find for people who can't afford to upgrade earthen dams on their property, mostly because of the legal liability agencies take on when funding dam repairs.

Conducting necessary repairs on outdated and unmaintained dams can be costly, and the responsibility for funding the maintenance falls on the property owners.

Welch Lake dam on Hominy Branch in northeast Columbia has needed repairs for more than a decade. Most recently, the drowning death of 20-year-old Michelle Runkle downstream from the dam on Sept. 14 caused some to re-examine the dam's ability to control storm runoff.

There is no way of knowing whether proper maintenance to the dam would have lowered the water level downstream where Runkel was swept away when she tried to rescue a stranded motorist.

The dam's owner, Danieal Miller, and nearby neighbors have various ideas about how to pay to fix it. Miller estimates it would cost $250,000 to restore the dam as an adequate flood control.

The dam's flood control is broken, and its spillways are mostly clogged, inhibiting its ability to control storm runoff. 

John Esterly, who lives near the Welch Lake dam, said controlling runoff will become increasingly more important as the area continues to develop and add runoff into the watershed.

Esterly said his neighborhood considered paying for the repairs by forming a nonprofit and applying for a state grant. They also considered pooling their money. Neither of these ideas has gotten off the ground, Esterly said.

Finding ways to qualify for assistance might take more than creative ideas from neighbors, though. Missouri Department of Natural Resources engineer Bob Clay said in an e-mail that he's not sure whether urban dams, such as Welch Lake dam, would qualify for funding from U. S. Department of Agriculture watershed programs that are geared more for rural and agricultural uses.

"I don't know of any state or federal grants currently available to fund repairs for privately owned dams," Clay said in an e-mail. "I wish I had more positive news, but I'm afraid there isn't much out there as far as financial assistance is concerned."

Harold Deckerd, assistant state conservationist for water resources with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service in Missouri, said he also doesn't know of any agencies that provide money for private dam owners because there often are too many pre-existing conditions and liabilities.

The Department of Natural Resources only regulates dams that are 35 feet high or taller. Regulated dams are regularly inspected and must meet certain standards for maintenance.

The problem with funding repairs on many unregulated private earthen dams is that the manner of construction is usually unknown to those trying to repair them. That can become a legal liability for the agencies, Deckerd said.

Many times when people buy land with earthen dams, they are unprepared to properly maintain them. "It's like buying a house in a flood plain," he said. "They're very complex. There's not just a simple answer."

As of 2005, Boone County had 106 unregulated dams, according to the National Inventory of Dams maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Twenty-one of those, if regulated by the Department of Natural Resources, would be classified as Class 1, or high hazard, dams.

The three-tier classification system is based on the severity of the storm a particular dam is required to withstand and the hazard its failure poses to people downstream.

Some Columbia residents downstream from the Welch Lake dam on Hominy Branch saw how quickly rainfall can whisk away an unregulated earthen dam — and the lake they enjoyed. On March 17, the privately owned dam that formed Moon Valley Lake broke, leaving a muddy bowl where once was 17 acres of water.

Regularly maintaining earthen dams can head off weakening caused by storm runoff, Deckerd said.

"The best thing is to mow it regularly to keep sprouts from growing into trees," he said.

Trees not only weaken the dam by burrowing roots into the soil and potentially causing seepage but also by attracting beavers. The closer the woody vegetation is to the water, the more accessible it is to beavers, whose dams can clog spillways and overwhelm secondary spillways, Deckerd said.

The Missouri Department of Conservation and the Natural Resources Conservation Service provide pamphlets on proper dam maintenance.

The Welch Lake dam is in such disrepair that Miller said he's not even sure he's going to keep it. As the owner, Miller could apply to the corps for a permit to drain the lake and conduct a controlled removal of the dam, corps spokesman David Kolarik said.

Neighbors, however, worry that removing the dam would make flood problems worse, Esterly said.

But, if Miller said, if he is to keep the dam, he doesn't think he should  have to foot the entire repair bill. He points to new development upstream from the dam that has increased runoff into the lake.

Miller would like upstream developers to share the cost because they share the benefits of the lake and the stormwater control it provides.

"There's going to have to be something done to turn it into a flood-control device," Miller said. The problem for Miller is creating an incentive for the developers to share the cost when they are already required to provide adequate stormwater management on their property.

Miller thinks some type of governmental body — the city, the county or the Missouri Department of Natural Resources — would need to loosen on-site stormwater control requirements on upstream developers. In exchange, they would agree to contribute to the dam, Miller said.

Esterly thinks the best approach would be to continue to pursue state grants because it wouldn't require money directly from Miller or upstream developers.

"We've got funds at the state level if we would just go through the process," Esterly said. "I am someone who would like to help and has a viable solution to the problem that wouldn't come out of Mr. Miller's pocket."

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