Hundreds of aging Georgia dams sit upstream of homes and major roads—and are in urgent need of upgrade and repair

Nearly 200 dams—more than in any other state—are described as high-hazard and in poor condition by the National Inventory of Dams, an official database maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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Photograph by Getty Images

Backyard docks line the perimeter of King Lake, a 23-acre body of water just outside the town of Milton. In October, patches of orange and yellow reflected off the lake’s still waters. The surrounding neighborhood, Canterbury on the Lake, is a cul-de-sac community filled with dozens of upscale homes on large lots, some with swimming pools and backyard patios. Most houses are out of sight of King Dam, the structure that created this lake—and which could pose a threat to the neighborhood’s future.

Though it’s a towering 35 feet tall, King Dam would hardly be noticeable if not for a clear-cut access road leading up to it; an earthen dam (unlike, say, the massive wall of concrete at Tallulah Falls), it blends into its surroundings. Inconspicuous like many dams across Georgia, the circa-1960 structure is one of roughly 550 in the state where failure or damage could be life-threatening. It’s also one of nearly 200 dams—more than in any other state—described as high-hazard and in poor condition by the National Inventory of Dams, an official database maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Like hundreds of others with the same potential for catastrophe, King Dam will require millions of dollars in upgrades to meet state standards.

Georgia is home to the fourth-highest number of dams in the country: over 5,400. These dams dot the state—in backyards, near playgrounds, beside breweries. They are owned by individuals, homeowners associations, and state organizations. Over a third of the riskiest dams in the state are in the metro Atlanta area. Fulton, home to more than 1 million Georgians, has more high-hazard dams in poor condition than nearly any other county in the state.

The “poor condition” designation given by the National Inventory of Dams usually means a deficiency—such as structural deterioration—was identified during an inspection, calling for remedial action or further investigation.

“A dam considered in poor condition is not always an indication of a physical problem,” said Sara Lips, director of community engagement and communications for the EPD. But it is a sign that the dam doesn’t meet safety requirements, which could lead to problems down the road.

While Georgia state law requires that dams be kept safe and up to code, they often remain in poor condition for years: Of the dams posing the greatest risk, only 20 percent had inspections between 2018 and mid-2021, when the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, which oversees dam compliance, said inspections slowed due to the pandemic and staffing issues. For high-hazard dams, Georgia law requires an engineer inspection every two years and an owner inspection (most dams are privately owned) once a quarter. Failure to do so could result in revoking or modifying a dam owner’s permit, but data reflects little to no enforcement.

Millions of dollars worth of upgrades are needed to keep the communities surrounding these dams safe. Upgrades to the King Dam, for example, are expected to cost up to $8 million, according to state officials. “The scary thing is there’s probably a hundred dams in the state of Georgia that need that rehab,” said Alan Toney, the district chairman of the Fulton County Soil and Water Conservation District, which owns the King Dam. “That’s a lot of money.”

Dams in Georgia are largely split into two categories: I and II. Category I dams are those that, “should the dam ever fail, there is a probable loss of life from that failure,” according to the Georgia EPD. Category II dams do not pose any potential threat to nearby communities. These constitute the majority of dams in the state and are not subject to regulation. (Category II dams are meant to be surveyed once every five years to see if the dam still exists and to see if structures have been built in its flood zone. They do not need permits.) Dams can switch categories during the Georgia EPD’s inventory of dams every five years. If an occupied structure—such as a house, school, or office—is in the flood path of a dam, it is upgraded to Category I.

The risk of a dam failing comes when a Category I dam is also in poor or unsatisfactory condition. Lake Forrest Dam, in Sandy Springs, is another Category I structure in poor condition. If this dam were to fail, it could flood West Wieuca Road, large swaths of Chastain Park, and more than 50 nearby homes and businesses. Costs to repair it have already exceeded $1 million.

Illustration by Jessie Blaeser

The cost to maintain many of the state’s dams has skyrocketed due to population sprawl: When most dams were built in the mid-20th century, few people lived downstream; now, subdivisions, parks, and major roads lie in the breach zones of hundreds of dams. “There are major hydropower projects that were built in the middle of nowhere, and now, they’re just upstream of a major urban center,” said Rachael Bisnett, a principal engineer and former chair of the United States Society on Dams Committee on Embankment Dams.

Despite the potential hazard these Category I dams pose, the cost of upgrading or repairing them is often far beyond the means of dam owners, who are liable should a dam failure lead to death or injury. The average cost to upgrade a dam to fit Category I structure requirements hovers around $1 million, said Brian Kimsey, a partner at Carter Engineering Consultants, an environmental engineering firm based in Watkinsville.

The cost to maintain or upgrade a dam—or its very existence—may come as a surprise for some. Over half of the state’s dams were completed before 1979. Toney said many of the structures are so old that they don’t show up in title searches when residents are buying property. He recalled speaking to one woman who lived in the shadow of a large Category I dam. “She goes, ‘What dam?’” Toney said. “‘That’s a dam. There’s water on the other side—there’s a huge lake up there,’” he told her. “She didn’t even know it.”

It wasn’t until 1978 that the state legislature passed the Georgia Safe Dams Act to set safety standards and streamline inspections. Over 40 years later, though, it has resulted in a bureaucratic morass: There are at least eight federal and state agencies that touch dam regulation in Georgia.

Having regulatory responsibilities for a dam does not always translate to steady maintenance or compliance with state law. Nor do inspections—when they are conducted—translate into prompt repairs. While Kimsey said his firm’s projects typically take two to three years to finish, they can last much longer. In late September, he visited a site that he began working on in 2007. “Design and permitting is complete but the dam owner could not secure funding yet,” Kimsey said. The project could cost five single-family homeowners $1.2 million, collectively.

Instead, the homeowners might look to alternatives, he said, including removing the dam altogether, which would eliminate the nearby lake and lower their property values. But at least “they don’t have this looming over their head,” Kimsey said. “It’s a hazardous dam, and they’re liable for something that goes wrong.”

Unlike most of the dams Kimsey works on, King Dam is owned by the state. Fulton County Soil and Water Conservation District recently received $625,000 from the National Resource Conservation Service in order to design the dam’s multimillion-dollar upgrade. Once that’s complete, state officials expect the federal government to cover up to 65 percent of the upgrade and rehabilitation costs.

Toney estimated the King Dam has been waiting on this rehab for more than seven years. “Certainly, that’s a lot of money,” he said, but “we’re talking about one dam—just one little dam here.”

Upgrades for hundreds more in Georgia remain.

This article appears in our December 2022 issue.

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