Dunbar didn't know his predicament until Jonathan T. Phillippe, Virginia's dam-safety director, knocked on the door of his modest, gray frame home recently and told him.
Dunbar, a 59-year-old farmer, said he
wasn't concerned, even though a storm about 15 years ago pushed water within 10 feet of his
"The water won't ever get in here," he
"I wouldn't be too sure about that," Phillippe
If water did sweep through the house, Dunbar said, he
would stay with a relative on high land.
walked away, Phillippe
, a 62-year-old civil engineer, said that Dunbar knew his
willing to take that risk," Phillippe
Dunbar's situation is one example of a host of problems troubling Virginia's dams, and people below them.Consider:
No state or federal law -- and as far as Phillippe
can tell, no local law requires people to be told they are living, or buying a house, in a potentially dangerous spot below a dam.
Many people live so far below a dam they don't even see it -- or know it threatens them.
Virginia regulates approximately 500 dams -- about 40 don't meet state standards.The state is working with the owners to bring the dams into compliance.The dams need work totaling $20 million to $40 million.In some cases, people live in jeopardy below the dams.
Virginia trailed bordering states in changing the rules, according to Phillippe
These dams are owned by homeowners' associations, local governments and individuals -- parties that typically don't have a lot of money.
Within this group, the dams in worst shape probably need $5,000 to $8,000 of work, primarily to cut trees and shrubs that grow into earthen dams and weaken them.
When dams break, they can be deadly and costly.In 1995, torrential rains burst the Timberlake Dam in Campbell County, killing two people downstream in the flooding.
Tools such as improved computer simulations helped Virginia officials discover problems at many dams in just the past two years, Phillippe
Virginia's most dangerous dams are among those the state has regulated for years.Tops on the list is probably the 43-foot-tall Big Cherry Dam, owned by Big Stone Gap in Southwest Virginia and located just north of the town.
Concrete in the dam is deteriorating.Studies show the dam may fail in a "probable maximum storm."That term, a benchmark in dam safety, means a storm so huge it might occur just once every 500 to 10,000 years.
said a probable maximum storm "is a big storm, but it's a very realizable storm, and that's what worries me."
When a big storm approaches, people below potentially dangerous dams are alerted and may be told to evacuate, Phillippe
said.Still, some people might refuse to go, or they could miss the alert.
If a huge flood hit the Big Cherry Dam, Phillippe
said, "There are people downstream who could be swept away."
The Summit Dam near Winchester poses another problem.The dam's main spillway isn't large enough to pass a lot of water in a big storm.That means water could rush across the top of the earthen dam, eroding it and causing it to burst.
That nearly happened in 1972, when water from Hurricane Agnes rose almost to the top of the 102-foot dam.
"People live immediately downstream, and development pressure is coming that way, so we are concerned about getting that dam fixed," Phillippe
said."It is a serious situation."The dam is owned by the Lake Holiday Country Club
, a homeowners' association.
The third most-dangerous dam is the Marrowbone Creek Dam near Martinsville.It is owned by a Soil and Water Conservation District.A big storm could erode the emergency spillway, causing the earthen dam to break, Phillippe
said.The dam needs about $1.5 million worth of work.About $750,000 has been budgeted.
Soil and water districts are funded primarily by the state.They own and operate dams across the state, mainly for flood control.
...Madeline Loving, a high-school English teacher who lives on the lake, was surprised when Phillippe showed up and told her some shrubs on the lake's 23-foot-tall dam would have to be cut.
said it may have to go, too.
"That makes me feel a little disappointed," Loving said."I love that tree."
One of Phillippe's biggest concerns is that people are building homes below dams without knowing it.
"There is no law requiring disclosure that you are downstream from a dam and no law preventing anyone from building in a dam-breech area," Phillippe
"I think that's a risk people at least should be aware of.I think people should have every right to take every risk they want.I'm a libertarian when it comes to that.But I think people should take informed risks."
Some dams, such as those forming the 120-acre Woodland Pond in Chesterfield and the 35-acre Beattie's Mill Lake in Hanover County, are of concern because roads just below them could be washed out should the dams fail. (Woodland Pond is in good shape; the Beattie's Mill Dam needs work.)
office is planning to put dam information on a database that local planners can consult while guiding development.
It's easy for people to get into a "dry-weather mentality" -- not realizing how dangerous a flood can be, Phillippe
That kind of thinking, he
said, can be deadly.
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