One morning in 2012, Ron Franzel stood out in his backyard and watched the water in the 7-acre Brentwood Today Lake drain out as the earthen hill that held back the flow slowly collapsed.
After years of flooding during heavy rain storms that had damaged the spillway, the dam failed. Franzel called the city of Raleigh, worried that people and property downstream would flood if the dam collapsed too quickly.
“Thankfully, the dam failed slowly and drained the lake before it could have major flood damage,” he said. “We were very happy about that and relieved.”
Five years after its collapse, Brentwood Today Lake is nothing more than a stream that runs through a mosquito-filled patch of trees and bushes. And Franzel said it will stay that way for the foreseeable future because the city has decided to repair erosion to the stream rather than fix the dam and restore the lake.
Brentwood Today Lake was one of hundreds of ponds and lakes held back by dams in Raleigh. The city is now trying to determine the condition of all the dams to help it decide which ones need repairs. Raleigh steps in sometimes to fix private dams to improve water quality, reduce flooding downstream and improve safety, but it can’t afford to help in every case.
There are 417 dams in Wake County, more than in any other county in North Carolina, and nearly 90 percent of them are privately owned by individuals, homeowners associations or businesses. Many property owners don’t realize it’s up to them to maintain and repair the structures, and even those who do might not have the money.
While dam failures are uncommon, they do happen, particularly during storms. Seventeen dams in North Carolina failed last fall during Hurricane Matthew or in the days after the storm, and 40 dams failed during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
While newer dams create lakes in subdivisions or golf courses, many Wake County lakes were built as farm ponds to provide water for crops and livestock. As Wake continues to grow, these older dams in once-rural areas are now capable of causing much more damage if they fail because of downstream neighborhoods, businesses and roads.
Regulators classify dams by the level of risk posed if they were to breach or fail; the more buildings and other properties downstream, the higher the risk. A higher classification may require upgrades to the dam to meet the increased need for safety – something the dam’s owner would be responsible for.
“We have had dams that are built in an area that at one point was very rural,” said Bridget Munger, spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. “There has been development that has come in, and in that case, the risk classification would change.”
When Rhonda Humphrey bought her home in the Northshore neighborhood off New Hope Church Road seven years ago, she considered the nearby lake an amenity, not a potential money pit.
If the dam that created the lake failed, the Northshore homeowners association would be responsible for repairing flood damage downstream. It could also be liable if anyone died in a flood.
The homeowners association, which owns the Northshore Lake Dam, didn’t know about its responsibility until Raleigh stepped in and made $3.4 million in repairs to the dam because the lake had a history of overtopping the dam, a common sign that it could fail. A dam breach could have resulted in flood damage to New Hope Church Road and the Brentwood neighborhood to the south.
“We had no idea,” said Humphrey, 57. “Then we were informed that if it had breached and had flooded the houses down below then the lake owners would be responsible for that.”
Most dams are inspected by the state’s Dam Safety Office at least once every five years, but all high-hazard dams – those that could result in deaths if they fail – are inspected at least every two years. Thirty-six percent of the county’s dams are high-hazard dams, according to the office, which falls under state Department of Environmental Quality.
If an inspection reveals that repairs are needed, the state issues a notice of deficiency to instruct the owner to fix it. If a more serious problem is detected, the state issues a dam safety order, which requires the owner to repair it or breach the dam and drain the lake.
Both scenarios require hiring an engineer and getting state approval, said Munger, the DEQ spokeswoman. Dam repairs could cost tens of thousands to millions of dollars.
“It can be very expensive to hire an engineering firm,” she said. “If you need to make any repairs to your dam, you will have to submit engineering plans to the State Dam Safety Office. For some people that is a big, financial hurdle.”
Given the cost, Raleigh has had to focus on dam projects that repair and improve the flow of stormwater and reduce flooding for the public, not just the private property owner. For example, the city completed the Northshore Lake Dam project to reduce downstream flooding to New Hope Church Road, as well as protect water quality and meet North Carolina Dam Safety requirements.
Raleigh is also planning projects at Brockton Drive Lake, Lower Longview Lake, White Oak Lake, Laurel Hills Road Dam and Lower Durant Lake.
“The ones we currently have on the books have been on the books for many years,” said Veronica High, Raleigh’s stormwater infrastructure manager. “A lot of times it does take 10 years or more to acquire enough funding to set aside for projects like this.”
Funding comes from Raleigh’s stormwater utility fee paid by residents on their monthly utility bills. The fee ranges from $2 to $14 per month based on the amount of impervious surface, or area that does not allow stormwater to soak into the ground.
After the city makes repairs, the dam owner is responsible for maintaining it. “We don’t have the capacity and the manpower to handle maintenance of all of these structures,” High said.
Lack of funding
Some states have programs to help owners of properties with dams. Virginia offers grants to reimburse property owners and municipalities for some of the cost of repairs that reduce the risk of dam failures and property damage from flooding.
Last year, Congress passed a bill that created the National Dam Rehabilitation Program to help with high-hazard dams, but Congress has yet to put any money in the fund this fiscal year, said Katelyn Riley, spokeswoman for the Association of Dam Safety Officials, a national nonprofit that serves state dam safety programs.
“Until this program is funded, a lack of financial resources will continue to be a reason dam owners are unable to implement needed repairs and upgrades,” the American Society of Civil Engineers said in its 2017 infrastructure report card.
High said some private property owners have asked Raleigh for help in paying for dam repairs in the past but said the city refers them to the State Dam Safety Office. She said slowly breaching the dam, draining the lake and allowing it to naturally become a wetland is a cheaper solution.
“Sometimes nature is the best engineer,” she said. “If the lake sits empty for quite a bit, the sun and nature and whatever seed material deposits on the bottom will actually start to germinate.”
Humphrey, who lives in Northshore, said typical homeowners or homeowners associations can’t afford costly repairs. Her association collects an optional $25 per year in dues, which about 10 percent of residents pay. She said some changes could be made to better inform residents of the responsibilities of living on property with a dam.
“In my opinion, the city should make it a requirement that Realtors who sell houses to people who live on those properties disclose that information to them,” she said. “And if they are held responsible for that, the funding should be there.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon
Are you downstream from a dam?
Visit Wake County’s website at maps.raleighnc.gov/iMAPS to determine whether your property is within the floodplain. Enter your address and click on ‘Layer’ to active the ‘Floodplains’ layer, which will show whether your property is in the floodway and the likelihood flooding will occur.