Editor’s note: This is one of a series of articles Reporter Newspapers is publishing about dams in our communities.
“The lake is pretty—as much as I would like to fill it in at times,” said Gerri Schwartz, the property manager in charge of Peppertree Lake.
It’s not the lake itself, nestled among homes in the heart of Sandy Springs’ Perimeter Center, that raises her ire. It’s the massive dam holding it back—and recent state-mandated repairs that may cost more than $60,000.
Peppertree Lake Dam is one of 11 “high-hazard” dams in Brookhaven, Buckhead, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs—“high hazard” meaning that if they collapse, the subsequent flood likely would kill people. More than 20 similar dams failed and contributed to deadly floods in South Carolina last month.
Many of Georgia’s dams are in private hands with homeowners on the hook for maintenance. Along the top end of the Perimeter, homeowners may grumble at the cost, but likely can afford it. Lower-income areas, or old dams where no owner can be found, can be a bigger problem.
About 15 states have some type of grant or low-interest loan program for dam repairs, but Georgia is not among them, according to the state Environmental Protection Division.
Meanwhile, the state has boosted its Safe Dams Program budget and is proposing targeted inspections of known problem dams—but also leaving other dams largely to privately funded inspections. “They’ve passed on to [homeowner] associations the cost of that inspection. It doesn’t sound fair to me,” said Schwartz.
Donald Dutson Jr. has supervised maintenance on Sandy Springs’ Powers Lake Dam on behalf of his homeowners association for 30 years. He doesn’t mind paying the bill.
“I’d say we spend a few thousand dollars a year maintaining it…but at least we’ve got the peace of mind,” Dutson said.
That work currently amounts to mowing and keep drains cleared, and that bill is split among many homeowners.
But bringing in a private dam engineer—from a relatively short state-approved list—can cost “hundreds and hundreds of dollars an hour, plus travel time,” he said. And if a major repair is necessary, the costs can easily run to five digits. About 25 years ago, Powers Lake Dam started showing “wet spots” and needed $30,000 in repairs, Dutson said.
A major structural repair “could be so expensive you have to pave it and turn it into a skating park,” Dutson said, but added that is what good maintenance should prevent.
Georgia long has been below the national average in state dam inspection resources, according to the Kentucky-based Association of Dam Safety Officials. The legislature boosted the Safe Dams Program budget this year, from $670,000 to $1.2 million, including an increase in full-time staff from six to 11, according to EPD. That’s still only 11 people monitoring more than 4,200 dams statewide—474 of them rated high-hazard.
When state inspectors arrive at a high-hazard dam, that may kick off disagreements with the owners that drag on for years. A state engineer and the local civic association recently debated whether a pipe at Brookhaven’s Silver Lake Dam is a “catastrophic” threat or a useless old construction leftover.
State records show that Schwartz’s engineer and inspectors disagreed for more than a decade about whether trees should be removed from the Peppertree Lake Dam’s spillway. Schwartz recently had the trees cut down and, like Dutson, praises the state for being accommodating in coming up with solutions.
But she still doubts the necessity for the tree-cutting and isn’t thrilled that inspectors also said “no” to putting benches near the water. The state also demanded installation of an emergency siphon drain that will cost $50,000 to $60,000, she said.
“[The lake has] turtles and fish and geese…It would be nice to use it as an amenity,” she said of the banned benches. “Your hands are tied.”