Dam shame: KATU investigation finds major issues with Oregon's dams

Dam shame: KATU investigation finds major issues with Oregon's dams »Play Video

PORTLAND, Ore. - Just on the edge of South Salem sits an unassuming little dam that failed a state inspection last month.

It’s not among the largest of Oregon’s 1,231 statutory dams, nor is it one of the most imposing.

You might not even realize it’s a dam.

It’s made of dirt. It’s overgrown with trees.

Yet it is essential to the safety of the people who live in the surrounding neighborhood – a mobile home park to the east, some apartments to the west.

Cinnamon Lakes Dam, as it is called, is what separates them from more than 4 million gallons of water. The state says that if the dam should break, as many as 40 homes would be destroyed and some of the 376 people who live in the neighborhood would likely be killed.

Months of research by the On Your Side Investigators found that Oregon’s dams, which are owned by a messy web of federal, state and private concerns, often lack resources for inspection and maintenance and that some of the state’s most dangerous dams lack an emergency plan in case of catastrophic failure.

And many people who live in the shadows of those dams give little thought to what could happen.

“It's kind of interesting,” said Rita Green, who lives near the giant Detroit Reservoir Dam. “You'd want to know, living in this area, how it is maintained. Day to day, you don't really think about things like that unless someone brings it up or someone's talking about them.”

‘Different levels of emergencies defined’

Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a report card grading America’s infrastructure.

Dams were graded a D.

What kind of shape are Portland dams in?

  • PORTLAND #5 (MT.TABOR) – SPECIAL**            

*The Army Corps of Engineers does not use the state’s 4-code classification system. They provided KATU with the following evaluation of the Bonneville Dam:
"Our primary concerns at Bonneville are related to spillway gate reliability, stilling basin erosion, and hydrologic capacity: the electrical and mechanical systems of the spillway are unreliable and need upgrading. The spillway gates cannot feasibly be opened to pass river flows exceeding 950,000 cubic feet per second, which is about a 500-year event. Having said that, Bonneville Lock and Dam remains fully operational and presents no immediate danger to people and property below the dam. We've adopted interim measures at Bonneville to reduce the overall risk of failure while we pursue long term remedial measures."

**The Oregon Water Division originally told KATU these dams were under Army Corps of Engineers oversight. But this morning the Corps told KATU that is not the case. KATU was finally able to determine that they are inspected by the Portland Water Bureau, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Water Bureau issued this statement about the fitness of the dams:

"The Mt. Tabor dams and the City's dams in the Bull Run Watershed are inspected monthly by Portland Water Bureau Engineering Department staff. Dam Safety Engineer(s) from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) inspect the dams annually (dates of last inspection: Mt. Tabor 1,5,&6: 3/26/14, Bull Run Dam 1: 6/5/13) None of the inspections have found any significant dam safety issues. The Mt. Tabor dams and the City's Bull Run dams have Emergency Action Plans that are updated and tested annually (and reviewed by the FERC)."

Dams are classified according to hazard rating that refers to the likelihood of mass destruction in in the event of failure. If a dam is rated a “high” hazard – as are Cinnamon Lakes and 134 others in Oregon – it means people are likely to die if that dam fails.

Hazard ratings don’t refer to how likely a dam is to fail – they just tell you what would happen in the event it does.

Make no mistake though; there are lots of dams in bad shape across the country. The ASCE regards 4,000 dams in the U.S. as “deficient,” and of those, 2,000 are also rated a high hazard.

Oregon’s dams were graded slightly higher than the national average – we got a C – but problems are particularly evident in the 950 or so that are run by the state and private enterprises rather than the federal government.

Perhaps the most glaring problem – though one that’s being gradually addressed – is a lack of crisis-mitigation planning.

When catastrophe strikes, an emergency action plan (EAP) is the Bible for rapid lifesaving.

The EAP is a detailed document intended to identify and notify people who live below a dam in case of emergency, and to coordinate their evacuation.

Though every federally operated dam that’s rated either a high or significant hazard has an EAP, many managed at the state level don’t.

“They talk about roles and responsibilities within the Corps and the roles of managers downstream,” said Matt Craig, the dam safety program manager for the Army Corps of Engineers in Portland. “There are, I'll call them flow charts, or processes to find depending on the nature of the emergency. There are different levels of emergencies defined, and a notification chart which includes what Corps people will be notified, and also (who will be notified) outside the Corps.”

About 35 percent of the state-regulated dams in Oregon lack an EAP – including 24 that are rated as a high hazard.

The lack of emergency planning is especially important because lots of Oregon dams are in bad shape. Nineteen of the high-hazard dams the state manages are in either poor or unsatisfactory conditions, according to state records.

And of those highly risky dams, six still don’t have an EAP – a number that was much worse even two years ago.

“In the state we’ve been focusing on the high hazard dams,” said Oregon Water Resources Department dam safety coordinator Keith Mills. “Right now we require – and we have for some time required – an emergency action plan with the new dams. But many of the dams were built before that requirement was in place.”

‘The dam was observed to be severely deteriorated’

Evaluating the state’s dams was a terrifically complicated process.

The On Your Side Investigators submitted Freedom of Information Act records requests to six different offices – three divisions of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Oregon Water Resources Department) – requesting inspection reports and EAPs for the high-hazard dams in the state.

Many requests were denied on the grounds that releasing the information might put the dams’ security at risk.

“I think on its own, it doesn't really provide info for anybody,” Craig said. “What would (the public) do with the information?”

The mishmashed response reflects the dams’ scattershot regulation.

The Army Corps of Engineers allowed KATU to review one inspection with a structural engineer present.

One arm of FERC agreed to release inspections if the On Your Side Investigators signed non-disclosure agreements. Two months later, those records have yet to arrive.

As of Monday, only one report had been delivered by any agency – a 2011 inspection by the Bureau of Reclamation for the Gerber Reservoir Dam in Klamath County.

But some of the information in that report is dire.

“Consistent with previous inspections, the dam was observed to be severely deteriorated due to the effects of freeze-thaw cycling,” it reads. “The leakage through the dam continues to contribute to the freeze-thaw deterioration.”

Elsewhere, the inspection reports that “the maintenance of the structure and associated mechanical equipment is considered unsatisfactory” because 10-year-old recommendations for dealing with severely corroded mechanical equipment had not been implemented.

‘We’re all sitting ducks’

Since 1960, there have been 25 dam failures in the U.S. that caused at least one fatality

The worst was a failure near Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, that killed 125 people and left 3,000 homeless in 1972.

In Kauai, Hawaii, the Ka Loko Dam killed seven people in 2006. Poor maintenance and lack of inspection were possible factors, and owner James Pflueger eventually pleaded no contest to reckless endangering.

The failure of the Teton Dam in Idaho was particularly dramatic, killing 11 people in 1976.

Internal erosion led to the failure of the Teton Dam in 1976.

Part of the problem: the average age of the nation’s dams is 52 years old. And 69 percent – including, again, Cinnamon Lakes and Ka Loko – are privately owned.

The four percent of dams that are owned by the federal government get a thorough inspection every five years. The rest rely on individual states for regulation – and that regulation can vary quite a bit.

In Washington, for example, there are 8.5 full-time employees who oversee the state’s 227 high-hazard dams. The program had a budget of $1,330,303 in 2013.

Oregon, on the other hand, has the equivalent of 2.93 full-time employees overseeing 135 high-hazard dams, with a budget of $244,000. Only one, the WRD’s Mills, is full time.

The difference is stark. Oregon inspectors each oversee an average of 453 dams, while Washington inspectors oversee about 121 each.

Even recently, the cracks have been showing.

The Bend Parks and Recreation District released a report last week from an independent contractor that found Mirror Pond Dam is on the fast-track to failure.

In Newport, a report last year found that a big earthquake could destroy Big Creek Dams No. 1 and 2, wiping out the city.

And in Washington, a massive crack in the Wanapum Dam has engineers scrambling to lower water levels and figure out just how bad the damage is.

Fixes won’t come cheap.

The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates it would cost $57 billion to fix the nation’s non-federal  dams. The Army Corps of Engineers says it would cost about $25 billion to get its dams up to speed. And the Bureau of Reclamation says it would cost about $2 billion just to fix the most pressing needs at 20 of its sites.

Dana Stuzman, who also lives in the path of the Detroit Reservoir Dam, said she hasn’t given much thought to any of this.

“You go to the coast and they have tsunami evacuation signs,” she said. “They don't have them around here for a dam breaking.

“I mean what are we going to do? We're all sitting ducks.”

Check some of the state's innundation maps below: