Regular inspections, federal oversight insure safety of Gantt, Point A dams

Published 1:08 am Friday, February 24, 2017

The safety of America’s dams became a hot topic earlier this month when more than 180,000 people were evacuated in California amid fears that a spillway at the dam might collapse.

Heavy rainfall in California caused flooding, and officials feared erosion had compromised the emergency spillway at the Oroville Dam, the nation’s tallest. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency on Feb. 13, and people downstream were ordered to evacuate.

The potential crisis and resulting evacuation prompted numerous news stories about the safety of dams across the United States, and revealed that Alabama is the only state in the U.S. without a dam safety program. The state does not perform dam inspections and has no money to assist dam owners with repairs or removals.

But some of the state’s dams – including the Gantt and Point A dams – are subject to federal oversight, which means they must have safety plans in place.

PowerSouth operates the two hydroelectric dams near Gantt, along the Conecuh River. The Gantt and Point A dams have provided clean, reliable energy for PowerSouth’s members for more than 70 years.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a government agency that regulates the reliability and safety of the nation’s electric grid, inspects PowerSouth’s dams annually.

Additionally, PowerSouth’s dams are routinely inspected by independent engineering firms, the company said.

PowerSouth employs a registered professional engineer who serves in the capacity of Dam Safety Engineer for Gantt and Point A dams, the company said.

“The engineer works with FERC and private engineering firms to inspect the dams at prescribed intervals. He also monitors the dams’ embankments and structures to ensure public safety,” the company said in a prepared statement. “On a daily basis, PowerSouth staff inspects and monitors the dams to ensure water is released in the safest and most efficient manner and that all embankments and structures remain secure. Employees also continuously monitor both dams through a closed-circuit camera system. “

To maintain a FERC operating license, PowerSouth must implement and practice an Emergency Action Plan, which provides instructions for responding to a hazardous situation at the dams. This includes plans for communicating with the media, property owners and first responders in case of an emergency. In conjunction with the Covington County EMA, PowerSouth hosts an annual drill to practice these procedures.

An Association of State Dam Officials report shows that more than two-thirds of Alabama’s dams in the National Inventory of Dams are more than 30 years old. Only 19 percent of those considered high-hazard-potential dams have been inspected in the past five years, the report states.

“There is a very high likelihood that undetected rusted spillway pipes, embankment erosion, etc., of older and unmaintained dams will cause a dam failure incident.”

Any Army Corps of Engineers map totals the state’s dams at 2,271. According to its web site, 226 of those have high hazard potential, meaning a failure could cause loss of human life and significant property destruction.

Ninety-four percent of the state’s dams are earthen dams.