Investigation of Texas dams prompts review by lawmakers


Highlights

Leaders of three legislative committees say safety standards and exemptions warrant review.

Mayor Steve Adler has asked the interim city manager “whether we should be doing something differently.”

Key members of the Legislature and the mayor of Austin say they are looking into the safety and regulation of dams after an American-Statesman investigation that revealed shortcomings.

“We will revisit the issue dealing with dam infrastructure and make sure we’re not putting people at risk,” said state Rep. Lyle Larson, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. “We need to look if there’s a real and present danger to people and take corrective action if we’ve got dams that are substandard.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the Statesman’s report “raised a lot of good questions.” He added, “Dam safety is not a policy area that this council has tackled thus far. The (interim city) manager is going to look into it and tell us whether any council action is needed and, if so, make a recommendation to council.”

The Statesman found that several hundred dams upstream of populated areas, including six in Austin and others in Central Texas, could be breached in a worst-case flood, putting lives and property in peril from massive amounts of previously impounded water rushing downstream.

READ THE INVESTIGATION: Hundreds of Texas dams could fail in worst-case flood 

And in a sharp departure from national norms, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality applies stricter safety standards to dams whose failure would be expected to cost seven or more lives than it does to those whose collapse could possibly kill up to six people. What’s more, the Legislature in 2013 exempted more than 3,200 privately owned dams in rural areas from safety requirements, including 231 in the up-to-six-deaths category.

Larson, a Republican from San Antonio, said of the differing standards based on the number of possible deaths: “Obviously, we need to revisit that. The standards should be looked at from the standpoint of minimizing loss of life.”

State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, who leads the Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs Committee, agreed. “I didn’t know that standard existed,” he said. “I’m going to get to the heart of it. No one life is more valuable than another.

“I don’t think the state has prioritized (dam safety) at the highest level,” Perry said. “I think Hurricane Harvey has gotten attention to it. The urgency is there.”

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, who chairs the House Committee on County Affairs, agreed that Harvey, which dumped 50 inches of rain on parts of Texas and damaged 20 dams, was a wake-up call.

“We as a state have to learn that it’s not business as usual when it comes to flood events,” said Coleman, adding that the exemptions and the weaker standards for some potentially deadly dams are disturbing and warrant review. “If the infrastructure cannot protect people, it’s something that must be fixed.”

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said he often feels like “the senator in flood alley” because of the propensity for massive deluges along the edge of the Hill Country. “Harvey creates a highlighted awareness of certain types of needs if we pay attention,” he told the Statesman. “Your article helps us pay attention.”

Watson said “it kind of turned my gut” when he read about the different standards depending on the number of potential deaths. “Without casting aspersions on past decisions, let’s talk about the sort of standards we want in the future,” he said.

In addition, Watson said, storm standards and “creative mechanisms” for protecting life and property should be part of a wide-ranging review. One such mechanism might be a revolving loan program for dam improvements similar to an existing one for flood planning.

“We ought to be asking, ‘Do we let people move in below certain types of infrastructure? Does that mean we’d be giving land-use authority in places we’ve never allowed it in the past?’” Watson said.

At a minimum, Perry said, people who buy homes and other property should be advised beforehand if they would be in the potential inundation zone if a dam failed. “Developers can’t keep putting people in harm’s way without a huge education program,” he said.

The city of Austin has 32 high-hazard dams. Of those, 11 meet state standards and did not need upgrading. The city spent about $5 million to upgrade four others in recent years and is designing improvements on two more. Four are scheduled for preliminary engineering work beginning in two to six years. But 11 others have yet to be evaluated.

Adler said he has asked the interim city manager, Elaine Hart, “to let me and the council know whether we should be doing something differently than we’re doing now.”

What constitutes a worst-case flood for dam-design purposes might be a moving target as a result of global warming, said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist and a Texas A&M University professor of atmospheric sciences.

“And as the climate continues to warm, the amount of moisture that can go into a storm is going up,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “So climate change is making current estimates of probable maximum precipitation obsolete in the future. That’s relevant for dams because when you’re designing a dam you want it to last a long time. You want it to withstand future rains and not just past rains.”



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Texas News & Politics

Man arrested after road rage shooting involving Austin police officer, officials say
Man arrested after road rage shooting involving Austin police officer, officials say

Austin police have arrested a suspect who a Cottonwood Shores man said shot at his family and an off-duty Austin police officer in an apparent road rage incident in Burnet County. An off-duty Austin police officer stopped along RM 1431 during the November incident and intervened at the time, shooting and wounding the gunman, Austin police...
Texan gets panel’s nod for federal judge post over Democrats’ objections
Texan gets panel’s nod for federal judge post over Democrats’ objections

It has become a familiar scene at the Senate Judiciary Committee: A Texas nominee for a federal judicial post gets blasted by Democrats before being approved on a party-line vote. On Thursday, the committee, which includes both Texas GOP Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, considered the nomination of Matthew Kacsmaryk for a district judgeship in Amarillo...
Police: Man was racing when he crashed and killed 2 boys in Cedar Park
Police: Man was racing when he crashed and killed 2 boys in Cedar Park

An 18-year-old man arrested in the deaths of two young stepbrothers in a car crash last week in Cedar Park was racing when the wreck happened, police said Thursday. Hayden Michael Hammer was arrested and charged Thursday with two counts of racing on a highway causing death, a second-degree felony, Cedar Park police Cmdr. Bryan Wukasch said Thursday...
Anti-CodeNext PACs spend thousands to force vote
Anti-CodeNext PACs spend thousands to force vote

Campaign finance reports filed in Austin this week show that groups trying to put CodeNext on the ballot are raising and spending tens of thousands of dollars. Two special political action committees that are by and large against the city’s current revamping of the entire land use code, calling the effort “CodeWreck,” have spent roughly...
Mother, 8-month-old baby found dead in Taylor house after fire, officials say
Mother, 8-month-old baby found dead in Taylor house after fire, officials say

A mother and her 8-month-old baby were found dead Thursday inside their Taylor house after it caught fire, Taylor police officials said. Taylor police said they are investigating this as a suspicious death. Taylor firefighters were responding to an unrelated medical call when they saw smoke coming from the home at 2006 Brewer’s Place. Firefighters...
More Stories