Dam failures brings Ohio’s structures into focus

The recent failure of at least 29 South Carolina dams during record flooding prompted me to ask questions about the condition of Ohio's dams.

Both Ohio and South Carolina have significant numbers of privately owned and earthen dams. Most were constructed in the 1950s and 60s, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. 

Regulated dams – both privately and publicly owned – are subject to periodic inspections. They are divided into classes, according threats posed to downstream property and life. Class 1 dams hold the greatest potential for death and destruction. 

South Carolina has (or had) 2,400 regulated dams. Two hundred were classified as high risk.

By comparison, Ohio regulates 1,500 dams with about 400 classified as high risk.

South Carolina spent $260,000 on dam inspection last year. Ohio will spend $1.5 million on inspections this year. 

When it comes to dam safety, money makes a difference. 

In Ohio, the department of natural resources bears responsibility for inspecting all regulated dams and maintaining most that are publicly owned. Good examples of publicly owned dams are those at Buckeye Lake and Lake White.  

When I worked at DNR, the dam safety program was under-funded and under fire – especially during the administration of Gov. Ted Strickland. The Democrats came into office and appeared startled to discover the state's long-term neglect of its dams. They tried to light a fire under lagging inspection schedules. 

Republican Gov. John Kasich's administration continued to feed that fire, allocating more money for inspections and repairs as state finances improved, according to a DNR prepared statement.

The problem was "kicked down the road too long," the statement said. It called dam safety a Kasich administration priority.

Here are figures provided by the agency:

The $1.5 million allocated for the dam safety program this year will largely cover the salaries of 13 full-time employees.

During the last four years, DNR was allowed $85 million to beef up inspections and repairs. State park dams alone will get $45 million for repairs during the 2016-17 fiscal year. 

Since 2013, all DNR field staff in the parks, wildlife and forestry divisions have undergone training in dam safety procedures so they will know how to look for signs of potential failure. That takes a little work burden off the DNR's dam safety engineers. 

Six state-owned dams are currently undergoing repairs. Seven more have already been repaired, the statement said.  

It all sounds like a lot of money, until you realize that dams are expensive to repair. 

The dollars will only go so far in a place like Buckeye Lake where total repair estimates run to $150 million.

But at least the current administration recognizes a problem exists and is attempting to address it before a disaster like the one in South Carolina strikes close to home.

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