23 dams go unregulated in Cape Girardeau County

Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Loretta Schneider, a trustee of Lakeview Estates, stood on the dam at Little Bear Lake and talked about the maintenance of the dam by the homeowners association. (Diane L. Wilson)

Little Bear Lake provides the residents of the Lakeview Estates and Chateau Oaks subdivision with an amazing view and easy access to recreation. The nearly 10-acre lake reaches a depth of more than 30 feet at some points.

For about 40 years, the lake waters have been held in check by a 32-foot high dam. But dams age. As they age, they deteriorate. Like anything else manmade, they need maintenance. The Little Bear Lake dam's time for repair is now.

"We don't want to wait until something happens, and we just want to keep it in good shape," said Loretta Schneider, one of the trustees at Lakeview Estates, located in the northern part of Cape Girardeau near Lexington Avenue.

The Little Bear Lake dam is one of 23 dams in Cape Girardeau County not regulated by a government agency, state or federal. That means the only safety standards they have to meet are the ones deemed necessary by property owners instead of government bureaucrats.

According to 2002 figures, Missouri has nearly 5,000 dams in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' National Inventory of Dams, including more "high-hazard" dams than any other state as defined by the corps.

By the corps' definition, a high-hazard dam is one that can kill if it ruptures. Missouri leads all states with 390.

According to the law that governs the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' regulation of dams, a high-hazard dam is one that can destroy 10 or more households. Of 643 regulated dams in the state, 447 fit this definition by state standards. Those dams are inspected every two years.

Schneider, who is a member of the Cape Girardeau City Council, and her fellow homeowners knew the age and history of the Bear Creek dam. Last summer they brought in an engineer with the local USDA office to inspect it. While the inspection found the dam to be safe, the engineer also found that in just a few years the earthen dam would need work to fortify its aging structure.

When the summer's dry peak hits in August or September, contractors will remove silt built up from coves along the lake shore and use it to add to the dam wall.

After the collapse of the Taum Sauk reservoir in December, the repairs took on even more importance. "Knowing what recently happened at Lesterville, we had some greater incentive," said Schneider.

While Little Bear is nowhere as large or potentially deadly as the two Taum Sauk reservoirs, the body of water is still large enough to severely damage homes downhill from the dam. But where Taum Sauk's earthen walls were required to be inspected, Little Bear's aren't.

Of course, inspections didn't seem to work at Taum Sauk. The dam was breached despite the required visits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Evidence points to sagging walls and overflow problems that happened before the collapse and may have contributed to it, but the cause hasn't yet been determined.

Dams like Little Bear escape inspection because they are too short. A dam must be 35 feet high in order to fall under regulation by the state. Numerous other dams over 35 feet high avoid inspection because of special agricultural exemptions, but none of Cape Girardeau County's unregulated dams rise above 32 feet.

Many of those familiar with dam safety and regulation consider state standards like Missouri's 35 feet too lax.

Brad Iarossi works with the American Society of Civil Engineers on their annual rating of America's infrastructure. He says regulations like Missouri's could benefit from tightening but that the problem goes beyond unregulated dams.

Iarossi and the ASCE paint a gloomy picture of dam safety in the U.S., so gloomy that the ASCE gave the American dam system a "D" on its latest annual report card. Every year since the annual report began in 1998, American dams have gotten the same grade, Iarossi said.

One of the biggest reasons is the age of the system.

"Dams are getting older," Iarossi said. "By 2020, 85 percent of them will be 50 years old or older."

When dams near the 50-year mark, like Little Bear, maintenance becomes more and more of an issue, said Iarossi.

To add to the problem, 95 percent of dams are regulated by states, each of which may have different standards and different resources. "Some states have 2,500 regulated dams and one engineer to look over the entire program," Iarossi said.

The Missouri average is 107 dams per full-time employee, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

Since the Taum Sauk break the dam problem has gained a higher profile in Missouri. DNR deputy director Mike Wells said the department is working on a report for the governor's office comparing Missouri's dam regulation with that of other states.

"It's not really fair to say ours is a better program or a worse program," Wells said. "We think we've made a lot of accomplishments since 1979 (the year Missouri began regulating dams)."

High-hazard state-regulated dams are inspected every two years. Medium-hazard dams, defined as those that could cause a loss of life in nine dwellings or more, are inspected every three years. Low-hazard dams, those with the potential to destroy one or fewer dwellings, are inspected every five years.

Wells said the department also encourages landowners to frequently inspect dams for themselves and immediately report any problems to the agency.

At Little Bear, no one forced the homeowners to inspect the dam. However, Schneider said it was in the best interests of the homeowners there since they would be liable for any destructive breach.

Maj. Michael Thomas of the Salvation Army lives below the Little Bear wall. In the case of a breach, the lake's water would rush through and overflow a creek that runs just behind his house.

"I think about it every time we have heavy rains and so forth," said Thomas. He lives just outside Lakeview but is relieved to hear the homeowners are inspecting and repairing the dam.

The homeowners of Tanglewood Estates have two unregulated dams to worry about, not just one. In Tanglewood two lakes, one right above the other, are separated by little but a dam. The lakes are at least three decades old.

At Tanglewood the homeowners' association has a maintenance person who inspects the dams. Three years ago he found a problem on the lower lake dam.

"It actually started caving in," said John Fuller, president of the homeowners association. Fuller said contractors were called in to inspect the dam's overflow pipe, which was found to be rusted through in spots under the dam.

The pipe was replaced, saving what could have turned into a costly breach.

Fuller said the homeowners now are concerned the same thing might be happening to the upper lake. Like the Lakeview residents, they want to be proactive. Two years ago they raised their homeowners' dues 100 percent, and the repairs for the upper lake are already budgeted for the time when the need arises.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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