Texas has made progress in addressing dam safety — there is no doubt. But more needs to be done to keep Texans who live near dams safe.
Twenty years after the Austin American-Statesman reported on widespread shortcomings in dam safety, another Statesman investigation by Ralph K.M. Haurwitz published last week found hundreds of dams in Texas remain at risk of failure. It also found that, as more communities develop near dams, substandard dams increasingly put the lives of people at risk.
Meaningful change at the state and local level, however, can ensure Texas has safer dams and that it protects more lives near dams.
Changes should start at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which regulates and inspects dams. The commission should reconsider its hazard risk, or dam safety designation system. State legislators should also revisit a 2013 law that exempts rural dams from safety regulations. Texas should also create a loan program that allows private dam owners — private dams account for almost half of all Texas dams — to address dam safety issues. Local elected officials can help by pursuing regulation for proposed development near dams; none currently exists.
Those changes need to come sooner than later. There are 7,229 dams in Texas — 27 percent of those are upstream of populated areas where lives would be at risk if the dams were breached. Disaster is just one huge storm away.
The worst-case flood is a dam’s biggest threat. That scenario calls for the most severe wet weather conditions reasonably possible, according to TCEQ. Texas knows too well what that looks like: Band after band of heavy rain over one particular area, like Houston experienced during Hurricane Harvey. A similar storm over a dam near a populated area anywhere in Texas could be catastrophic.
In 1997, the Statesman reported on the alarming state of neglect and inadequate oversight of dams in Texas. At that time, nearly two-thirds of dams that sat above populated areas lacked inspection. Back then, the Commission on Environmental Quality dam safety team had just six employees.
Today, the environmental commission’s dam safety team has grown to 30 employees and has a $2.3 million annual budget. More dams whose failure would put people at risk are regularly inspected — and most dams under the commission’s oversight have submitted emergency plans.
Still, current state and local policies give experts reason to call dam safety in Texas an increasingly urgent matter. We agree.
One problem is the environmental commission’s safety designation system.
In Texas, a dam receives a “high-hazard potential” classification if the lives of seven or more people are in danger in a worst-case flood. A mid-level rating of “significant-hazard potential” is designated if the loss of up to six lives is expected in the event of dam failure.
High-hazard dams are required to meet the environmental commission’s strictest standards. The commission should require those high standards of any dam that threatens even a single life in a worst-case flood. That’s how the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and most states classify a dam high-hazard. Texas should, too.
During the last legislative session, state lawmakers gave the Texas Water Development Board $600,000 to create the state’s first flood plan. The plan will evaluate statewide flood risks and propose solutions for local governments to decrease those risks. State leaders must ensure the plan includes how to address dam failure risks.
Legislators should also revisit a state law that exempts dams from safety regulations.
That law, championed by then-Gov. Rick Perry, permanently exempts 3,232 dams in Texas — or 45 percent — from inspections and other safety requirements because of their relatively small size and rural locations. Although more than 90 percent of these dams would not be expected to cause loss of life if they failed, 231 of them are in the up-to-six-deaths-are-possible category, Haurwitz found.
The law puts convenience for private dam owners — who argued before legislators that safety-related studies and costs for improvements are too expensive — over the safety of people who live below the dams.
A state loan program would help dam owners with safety expenses. Legislators should consider creating such a fund.
The threats dams pose have also increased because more people have been allowed to settle below dams in what engineers call the potential inundation zone, which includes areas well outside the 100-year flood plain, which has a 1 percent chance of flooding during any given year. Development near dams, as the Statesman reports, is mostly unregulated by local, state and federal authorities. As a result, construction of housing, businesses and roads puts structures and people’s lives at potential risk from dams.
That needs to change.
Local elected officials across the state, including in Austin, need to limit development near dams, where a worst-case flood would threaten loss of life.
Experts say that the probability that a catastrophic storm causes dam failure is low. But, if Texas weather has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected. As such, state and local officials must make it a priority to keep communities near dams as safe as possible.