Investigation of Texas dams prompts review by lawmakers


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.”

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