Georgia has more dangerous dams than any US state

North Carolina ranked second in risky dams where failure could kill

‘It’s going to wash away us and a lot of beer,’ Atlanta brewery owner says of one leaky dam

Georgia leads the nation with nearly 200 dams in unsatisfactory or poor condition, according to a new study by The Associated Press.

A two-plus-year investigation identified 1,688 high-hazard dams as of last year in 44 states and Puerto Rico. They loom over homes, businesses, highways or entire communities that could face life-threatening floods if the dams don’t hold.

Georgia had 198 high-hazard dams in poor or unsatisfactory condition, the highest number among all states for which the AP obtained data. North Carolina was second with 168, followed by Pennsylvania with 145, Mississippi with 132, Ohio with 124 and South Carolina with 109.

Dam could flood Interstate 75, thousands of Atlanta homes

One of those Georgia dams is Reservoir No. 1 in Atlanta, a 180 million-gallon water supply dating to the late 1800s that has been out of service much of the last few decades. The city repaired it and brought it back online in 2017, only to shut it down again after leaks were noticed.

If the dam were to fail, the water could inundate more than 1,000 homes, dozens of businesses, a railroad and part of Interstate 75.

Joel Iverson has noticed water trickling out of the dam near the brewery he co-founded, Monday Night Brewing.

“If that one goes, it’s going to wash away us and a lot of beer,” Iverson said.

The Atlanta Watershed Management Department declined AP’s request for an interview about the reservoir and instead asked for questions in writing. When those were submitted, it declined to answer them.

Some states declined to provide condition ratings for their dams, claiming exemptions to public record requests. Others haven’t rated all their dams due to lack of funding, staffing or authority to do so.

Billions needed to repair US dams

“There are thousands of people in this country that are living downstream from dams that are probably considered deficient given current safety standards,” said Mark Ogden, a former Ohio dam safety official who is now a technical specialist with the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

Evacuations Begin As Virginia Dam On Verge Of Collapse

The association estimates it would take more than $70 billion to repair and modernize the nation’s more than 90,000 dams. But unlike much other infrastructure, most U.S. dams are privately owned. That makes it difficult for regulators to require improvements from operators who are unable or unwilling to pay the steep costs.

There is no national standard for inspecting dams, leading to a patchwork of state regulations. Some states inspect high-hazard dams every year, while others wait up to five years. Some states never inspect low-hazard dams — though even farm ponds can eventually pose a high hazard as housing developments encroach.

Dozens of New England dams a safety risk, in need of repair

Dam conditions are supposed to be rated as unsatisfactory, poor, fair or satisfactory. But the ratings are subjective — varying by state and the interpretations of individual inspectors — and are not always publicly disclosed.

Spending on dam repairs up since 2011

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. government has cited national security grounds in refusing to include dams’ conditions in its inventory, which was last updated in 2018. But the AP was able to determine both condition and hazard ratings for more than 25,000 dams across the country through public records requests.

It then examined inspection reports for hundreds of high-hazard dams in poor or unsatisfactory condition. Those reports cited a variety of problems: leaks that can indicate a dam is failing internally; erosion; holes from burrowing animals; tree growth that can destabilize earthen dams; and spillways too small to handle a large flood. Some dams were so overgrown with vegetation they couldn’t be fully inspected.

In 1982, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said most dam owners were unwilling to modify, repair or maintain the structures. Since then, every state but Alabama has created a dam safety program.

But the Great Recession a decade ago forced many states to make widespread budget and personnel cuts. Since a low point in 2011, states’ total spending on dam safety has grown by about one-third to nearly $59 million in the 2019 fiscal year while staffing levels have risen by about one-fifth, according to data collected by the Corps of Engineers.