When record-breaking rains hit South Carolina earlier this month, the deadly floods were made worse by the failure of little-known dams on privately owned lakes.
Many were built decades ago with dubious engineering and were monitored by an underfunded state agency that sometimes struggled to identify the dams’ current owners to order repairs, according to local media reports.
Georgia dodged the historic rains, but has similar challenges with more than 4,200 dams. The state Safe Dams Program lists more than 40 dams in Brookhaven, Buckhead, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs, most built decades ago during a boom in suburban leisure lakes and still the responsibility of private owners. The state categorizes 11 of those local dams as “high hazard,” meaning that if they were to fail, the flood likely would kill people downstream.
The “high-hazard” category is based on the size and location of the dam, not its current condition. Statewide, 474 dams are currently categorized as high-hazard. Some of the local high-hazard dams are well-known and publicly owned, like the lake in Brookhaven’s Murphey Candler Park. But many dams impound private lakes hidden behind back yards and possibly unknown to neighbors living downstream.
When the state categorizes a dam as high hazard, the owners have 180 days to get an operating permit, which includes filing an assessment of the dam’s condition. But in reality, determining the ownership and condition of such dams can be tough.
The Lake Forrest Dam on the Buckhead/Sandy Springs border is a classic example. The tree-covered dam is easy to miss even though Lake Forrest Drive runs right atop it. The state declared it high hazard six years ago, only to discover the dam’s complicated ownership tangle involving a homeowners association and the cities of Sandy Springs and Atlanta.
Sandy Springs agreed to take the lead on assessing the dam’s condition and any repairs, which has turned out to be a slow and labor-intensive process. Currently, the lake above the dam is half-drained, with some fish removed by boat, which in turn required lopping down many trees. There is still no final report on the dam’s integrity.
“It’s just kind of sitting on hold,” said Hansell Roddenbery, president of the Three Lakes Corporation, the local homeowners association. “We’re just not real sure what’s going on.”
Sometimes, the state can’t find any owner at all. In other cases, local homeowners are entirely on the hook and can be taken to court by the state if they don’t properly maintain their dams. State records show homeowners actively monitoring many of the local dams, but often at great effort and expense. Lake Northridge on Northridge Road in Sandy Springs is one example.
Gordon Elkins, president of Lake Northridge Inc., the local homeowners association, said he was pleasantly surprised when he moved into his home to learn of the beautiful, well-hidden, 88-foot-deep former quarry turned into a recreational lake in 1970. “I was shocked because I had no idea…this thing was even here,” Elkins said.
A far less pleasant surprise was the maintenance duties of dealing with “beavers, geese and a Class I [high-hazard] dam…It comes with a lot of responsibility, too.”
The homeowners association contracts with a private engineer who inspects the dam three or four times a year, Elkins said. Inspection reports are posted on the association website, lakenorthridge.com. The latest, from November 2014, reports the dam’s main parts in “excellent” shape.
State records on the 11 local high-hazard dams show only one safety issue presented as significant, and it may not be a real issue. A “bolted cover” on an emergency drainpipe on Brookhaven’s Silver Lake Dam could have “catastrophic consequences,” according to an engineer’s report dated in May of this year. But James Gallo of the Silver Lake Civic Association, which maintains the 27-acre lake, said that pipe appears to be a non-functional leftover from 1980s dam reconstruction and was “never intended as emergency relief.” Regular state and private inspections show the dam is in “very good condition,” Gallo said.
While state records do not show significant issues with most other dams, the records range from formal engineering reports to personal emails. For some, the most recent information dates to 2012.
Some files show the state cajoling owners for years to conduct maintenance. The management company responsible for the 76-year-old Peppertree Lake, which is tucked behind apartments off Peachtree-Dunwoody Road in Perimeter Center, recently removed trees that could have blocked an emergency flow of water from its dam. Records show a state engineer wrote it took more than a decade for the trees to be removed, and that the stumps still have to go as well. That company, Working Solutions, did not respond to a phone call.
While the maintenance issues can be minor, the stakes can be high. The Safe Dams Program was created after a 1977 dam failure in Toccoa, Ga., killed 39 people. In 1978, state inspectors found Silver Lake Dam to be so unsafe that the governor declared it “a real and immediate threat of a disaster.” The lake was drained and the dam demolished. The civic association restored it in the 1980s.
The local dams withstood metro Atlanta’s historic rainfalls and floods of 2009—in some cases with significant damage—but that doesn’t mean they will survive the next disaster. Georgia’s Safe Dams Program faces staffing shortages and budget cuts, according to damsafetyaction.org, an informational website run by the Kentucky-based Association of Dam Safety Officials. In South Carolina, there is talk of requiring reinforcement of old earthen dams and boosting the state inspection program.
Local ‘High-Hazard’ Dams
The following list shows the current conditions of the 11 local “high-hazard” dams as reported in state Safe Dams Program files. Unless otherwise noted, the owners of record did not respond to questions.
Capital City Country Club Lake Dam, W. Brookhaven Drive, Buckhead
Built 1925. Latest inspection information from 2014 indicates it is in good condition.
Cherokee Country Club Lake Dam (middle lake), Hightower Trail, Sandy Springs
Built 1966. Latest inspection information from 2013 reported some erosion that needed to be repaired. A 2010 inspection found erosion that “should be closely monitored.”
Dunwoody Club Crossing Dam, Dunwoody Club Crossing, Dunwoody
Built 1988. No clear inspection information on file.
Lake Forrest Dam, Lake Forrest Drive, Sandy Springs
Built circa 1945-1950. The city of Sandy Springs is in the process of examining its condition. Charles Wilson of Schnabel Engineering previously expressed concerns about signs of a leaking pipe within the dam, but a formal exam was still pending.
Murphey Candler Lake Dam, W. Nancy Creek Drive in Murphey Candler Park, Brookhaven
Built 1953. Latest report is from 2012, reporting relatively minor maintenance issues, when DeKalb County still owned the park and lake. The city of Brookhaven did not have an immediate report on its current condition.
Lake Northridge Dam, Northridge Road, Sandy Springs
Built 1970. Latest inspection report from 2014 said the main dam parts are in “excellent” condition. The homeowners association said the dam is regularly inspected by its engineer.
Peppertree Lake Dam, Dunwoody Springs Drive, Sandy Springs
Built 1939. Trees and brush removed this year from the spillway. A follow-up state report in July said the tree stumps should be removed and noted an unmarked and submerged drain. The report also advised against a request to place park benches in the spillway.
Powers Lake Dam, Powers Lake Drive, Sandy Springs
Construction date unknown. A 2014 report shows trees and brush were removed and an animal hole filled in. “To my knowledge, according to the state, our dam is in excellent shape,” said Donald Dutson Jr., the owner of record.
Scott Candler Reservoir Dam, Peeler Road, Dunwoody
Two reservoirs built: one in 1942; the other in 1953; dam expanded 2004. Latest reported information from 2012 called for relatively minor repairs and maintenance issues. DeKalb County did not respond to questions.
Silver Lake Dam, off Ragley Hall Road, Brookhaven
Originally built in 1911 and rebuilt since then. An inspection in May by Piedmont Geotechnical found some minor maintenance issues. Regular inspections say the dam is in “very good condition, according to James Gallo of the Silver Lake Civic Association. The state reported concerns about a “bolted cover” on a drainpipe, but Gallo says the pipe was never intended as an emergency drain and appears to be an old construction artifact.
Tera Lake Dam, Burdette Road, Sandy Springs
Built circa 1958. Latest inspection information on file showed issues of “seepage” and a spillway in a “deteriorated condition.” Safe Dams Program spokesman Kevin Chambers said the owners’ engineers “have met with our office, but no further progress.” Mike Johnson and Mark Pollack of Pollack Shores Real Estate Group are among its owners, the state says. Neither responded to phone calls.
Other Local Dams on State Inventory
The following is a list of other local dams that are on the state’s Safe Dams Program inventory.
D’Youville Lake Dam, D’Youville Trace
IBM Lake Dam, North Atlanta High School, Northside Parkway
Lake Moore Dam, Rickenbacker Drive
Reeder Lake Dam, Rilman Lake Court
Rivermeade Dam, Rivermeade Drive
Stern and Early Pond, Harris Valley Road
Brooke Farm Lake Dam, Brooke Farm Drive
Fountain Square Lake Dam, Peachford Road
Kingsley Lake Dam, N. Peachtree Road
Meadowlake at Dunwoody Dam, Lakesprings Way
Meadowlake Dam, Meadowlake Lane
Mill Glen Lake Dam, Mill Glen Drive
Zaban Park Lake Dam, Womack Road
Arlington Memorial Park Dam, Arlington Cemetery on Mount Vernon Highway
Carroll Manor Lake Dam, Carroll Manor Drive
Century Springs Lake Dam, Hammond Drive
Cherokee Country Club Lake East and West Dams, Hightower Trail
Dunwoody Country Club Lake Dam, Dunwoody Club Drive
Glen Errol Lake Dam, Glen Errol Road
Glenlake Dam Nov. 2, Abernathy Road at Glenlake Parkway
Hartrampf Lake Dam, Huntingdon Trail
Huntcliff Lake Dam, Huntcliff Trace
Huntingdon Lake Dam, Huntingdon Trail
Innsbruck Lake Dam, Innsbruck Drive
Lake North Dam, Colquitt Road
Laubman Lake Dam, Powers Lake Drive
Mission-Sandy Springs Lake Dam, Roswell Road
Natures Acre Lake Dam, Byrnwycke Road
Orkin Lake Dam, Monterey Parkway
Small Pond Dam No. 1, Powers Chase Circle
Spalding Lake Dam, Spalding Lake Court
Turners Lake Dam, Long Island Drive
Wildercliff Dam, Wilderlake Court