Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

10 Tips for Investigating Dam Safety

Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

10 Tips for Investigating Dam Safety

Article excerpt

Dams provide flood control, drinking water, fishing opportunities and other benefits, but they can threaten homes, businesses and roads with a catastrophic release of water if they fail.

An investigation published in November by the Austin American-Statesman found that several hundred dams upstream of populated areas in Texas violate state law because they could be breached by severe floods. The law requires such dams to be capable of holding up against a worst-case flood or, in some cases, a flood half or three-fourths as severe, depending on the size of the dam and the number of people expected to lose their lives if it collapsed.

Here are 10 tips for investigating dams in any community:

1.Scope out the big picture. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains the National Inventory of Dams, and its interactive website (nid. usace.army.mil) has information on more than 90,000 dams, including city, county, creek or river, purpose and even the name of the U.S. House member in whose district a dam is located. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (fema.gov/dam-safety) and the Association of Dam Safety Officials (damsafety.org) are also good sources, as are the websites of state agencies that regulate dam safety.

2.Scout the territory.

You can't miss the Hoover Dam, but the vast majority of dams are much smaller earthen structures, many of which blend into the landscape. You can locate some dams by using online programs such as Google Maps to look for bodies of water. For example, zooming in on a wide stretch of Brushy Creek at the eastern edge of Cedar Park, Texas, reveals the label "Soil Conservation Service Site 7 Reservoir," a telltale clue.

3.Expect obstacles.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, some federal and state agencies have sharply restricted the ability of news organizations and the public to obtain certain information on specific dams, citing security concerns. The restricted information includes whether dams are classified as high-hazardpotential - meaning their failure would threaten human life - and whether such dams could withstand half, most, or all of a worst-case flood as generally required. You can often obtain a considerable amount of aggregate information from regulators, although in some cases it might require filing an open records request.

4.Seek out local officials.

Cities, water districts and other local government units that own dams are sometimes willing to share details state and federal regulators won't divulge, in part because disclosure can build public awareness and support for improvements. In Texas, the Upper and Lower Brushy Creek Water Control and Improvement Districts helped us by granting interviews, conducting tours and sharing some site-specific information, such as engineering reports on dams that fall short of meeting safety standards and dams that have been upgraded. The city of Austin also provided site-specific information, including a list broken down by dams that have been modernized to meet state standards, those in need of preliminary engineering for upgrades and ones that have yet to be evaluated. Because the list included addresses, we were able to produce a map.

5.Bone up on the rules.

Laws and regulations can be eye-opening. …

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