Dec 09, 2011

Dams Are Coming Down, But Not in Texas

A dam in Central Texas' Blanco State Park, one of 7,500 in the state, the highest total in the U.S. Photo courtesy of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

By Eva Hershaw
For Reporting Texas

AUSTIN – Possum Kingdom Lake, northwest of Fort Worth, was created when the Morris Shepard Dam was built in 1938 to harness the Brazos River. It was the first water-supply reservoir in the state. Once a major hydroelectric generating facility, the dam became the first to surrender its operating license in Texas in 2007, when turbines that generated an estimated 22,500 kilowatts of electricity were disabled. There’s no talk of taking down the dam and freeing the river, though. Unlike the United States in general, drought-prone Texas is keeping the dams it has.

According to American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest group, the U.S. will remove its 1,000th dam in 2011. Dams are destroyed when maintenance costs or safety risks outweigh the costs of keeping them. Dam removal can revive lackluster fisheries and create recreational opportunities that contribute to local communities. The largest ever dam removal project, on the Elwha River in Washington state, began in September and was broadcast live on the American Rivers website.

Texas has more dams than any other state, with the National Inventory of Dams counting more than 7,500 that block, divert and slow waters in Lone Star State. The official numbers don’t include thousands of additional dams that lack permits. Yet Texas has removed fewer than 30 dams in its recorded history.

It’s difficult to take down a dam in Texas. The state’s landowner rights are among the strongest anywhere. State regulators have limited powers to force down a dam, and even if they tried, the process is extraordinarily bureaucratic. Then there’s the lack of “charismatic fish” like salmon in Texas waters.

The argument behind the removal of obsolete dams that are no longer serving their purpose is three-fold: Dam removal will improve public safety, given that many large dams are showing structural decay. Recreational opportunities would increase. And getting rid of dams would help survival rates of fractured fish populations.

The biggest argument against dam removal is water, which is always in short supply in Texas — a lake is a lake even if its dam isn’t generating electricity. The earliest populations in Texas congregated near rivers that descended from the higher western territories, eager to harvest the energy of the flowing water for mills and, much later, dams.

“We are a dry state,” said Ryan McGillicuddy, a fish biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “And that means we tend to think we need impoundments for water supply, while in reality many dams are used for recreational or aesthetic reasons.” The Brazos River Authority estimates that the Morris Shepard Dam gets 3 million recreational visitors a year, part of the reason it will not be considered for removal.

A dam along the Luling Paddling Trail south of Austin. Texas has removed fewer than 30 dams in its recorded history. Photo courtesy of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The state’s first two water plans, in 1961 and 1968, came during the nation’s dam and reservoir construction era. The reports recommended 45 and 62 reservoirs, respectively. According to the Lower Colorado River Authority, the pace of reservoir construction began to slow in the 1970s because of environmental laws, lack of funds and few good sites for new dams.  The Texas Water Development Board’s 2012 draft water plan calls for 26 new reservoirs. Even though the sites have yet to be determined, their general locations have. In contrast to past water plans, the 2012 plan calls for more off-channel reservoirs, those not directly in a river bed.

According to the Water Development Board, of the 196 reservoirs with storage capacities of 5,000 acre-feet or more, 169 were constructed before 1980. Only 25 major reservoirs have since been built. A resulting concern is the potential failure of dams built in the 1950s and 1960s. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency identified nine coal ash dams in Texas, Alabama, Colorado and Louisiana as “high hazard dams” for their potential to take human life and release metal-laden sludge if they failed.

“A lot of dams, not just in Texas, are at the end of their lifespan,” said Amy Kober of American Rivers. “One hundred years is kind of the max. Like any infrastructure, they get old.” The Federal Emergency Management Administration lists the average life expectancy of a dam as 50 years. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the average age of a U.S. dam is 51 years. The result, even if dams are privately owned, is a risk to public safety. Between 1989 and 2009, 74 dams failed in Texas. The 2008 Texas Infrastructure Report Card, published by the engineering society, gave Texas dams a grade of D-minus because of inadequate inspection, maintenance and repair.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is responsible for regulating dam construction and removal. The TCEQ’s Dam Safety Program has grown substantially over the past 10 years, with the staff increasing from 2 to 35. “There was a visible need for more inspections and inspectors,” said Warren Samuelson, head of the program. The state agency is tasked with inspecting hazardous dams, as defined by the federal National Dam Inventory, every five years.

“We don’t have an unsafe designation, and we don’t say ‘this dam is a candidate for removal,’” Samuelson said. “We don’t go there. We leave that up to the owner.” But the owner of a dam assumes legal responsibility for maintenance and, if a dam fails, the for the damage that results.

The “landowners rule” mentality has proven problematic for aging or obsolete dams. “Landowner rights – the Texan mentality – is reflected somewhat in policy,” said McGillicuddy. “We’re a largely privately owned state. There may be a perception or hesitance of state institutions to get involved in a private landowner decision.”

Serena McClain, director of river restoration programs for American Rivers, said a confluence of influences makes it hard to remove dams in Texas. “From a capacity standpoint, the state has trouble driving these projects on their own,” she said of private dam removals. “It’s always a sensitive issue, and the state doesn’t know whether or not the owner is on board.”

Dams are largely in private hands, but the water that flows through them is a public resource. For the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, that distinction is important. “For us, it’s a watershed connectivity issue,” said McGillicuddy. “Dams block the migration of fish species, alter the way sediments are transported and lead to unstable watershed ecosystems.”

The parks department is part of a group of officials that review planned dams for environmental impacts.

“We’ll review the project and see how it will impact fish and wildlife species,” he said. “If it negatively impacts them, we ask for mitigation.” The department has no enforcement powers, though. “The dam may be permitted regardless of what our opinion is,” said McGillicuddy. “This is why we need to raise the question of whether or not watershed connectivity is something that the state should be involved in.”

Dams can create isolated populations of aquatic species, limiting the transference of genetic material that keeps them healthy over the long haul. In many states, dams block access to important spawning grounds. “In other states, trout and salmon are the charismatic species utilized by a wide range of constituents,” said McGillicuddy. “When you have barriers to their migration, dams become a more visible obstruction to a healthy watershed.”

One of the main deterrents to dam removal in Texas is the lengthy application process. In his research for a master’s degree in geography at Texas State University, McGillicuddy compared Texas with two other states with effective records of dam removal to understand what, if anything, Texas could improve. His results indicated that the Texas process was so complicated that it thwarted those looking to remove a dam. “We don’t have a streamlined process available,” he said. “In other states, there is a single point of contact, a single application.”

The state Dam Safety Program outlines 10 permits and procedures that any dam owner must take before beginning removal. Depending on the kind of dam that the owners wish to remove, they may be required to obtain permits from the Dam Safety Program, Water Quality Program, 401 Coordinator, Floodplain Management Program and the TCEQ Water Rights Program, in addition to requesting a Parks and Wildlife Wildlife Habitat Assessment and a permit from the Texas Historical Society.

Private owners don’t necessarily have to navigate the removal process, though, because there are no penalties for just going ahead a private dam’s destruction.

“They should get those other permits,” said Samuelson of the Dam Safety Program. “But we won’t fine them if they don’t do it. Those are put there as guidance, so people don’t get themselves sued.”

He said the permitting process isn’t that big a deal. “It’s not very complicated,” he said. “All they have to do is get us the engineering plans, and we’ll let them do it.”

At the same time, the state is calling for more dams. “The effect of the drought on the discussion of dams has been the following: Build more,” McGillicuddy said. There have been calls to rush approval for four reservoirs in Northeast Texas.

Clay Church, a public affairs specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers, posed the question of dam removal another way: “Here we are in a severe drought, and the question would be why would you want to remove a dam?”

Samuelson agreed, adding that the drought had done nothing but added new cracks in the sides of old dams. “This concern at this point is more about the water than the dams,” he said. “If there’s no water available, it doesn’t matter if we build dams or not.”