Mississippi among worst states for dams rated in bad shape

In this Nov. 4, 2019 photograph, a bulldozer rests where crews are rebuilding a dam at the Rainbow Lakes subdivision near Meridian, Miss. The dam is one of a number in Mississippi that could kill someone if it collapses and that inspectors had found to be in poor condition.(AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

MERIDIAN, Miss. — Maybe it’s in a subdivision in Olive Branch, on a hill above Interstate 20 in Meridian, or in rural Carroll County. But across Mississippi, there are dams waiting for one inch too much of rain, or one year too many of neglect.

The state has one of the highest numbers of dams that pose dangers and are in poor or unsatisfactory condition, according to a two-year investigation by The Associated Press. Many are owned by nearly broke rural drainage districts or were built as amenities in subdivisions and may now be owned by homeowners unable to oversee or pay for maintenance. Sometimes, it’s not even clear who owns the structure.

While the word “dam” may bring to mind a hulking concrete structure, Mississippi dams are usually made of earth. When they’re in bad shape, they may be so tree-covered that it’s hard to see the structure holding back a lake.

Mississippi has 5,886 dams counted in federal records. Of those, 375 are high-hazard dams, meaning they could kill someone if they fail. Of those, 35% are in poor or unsatisfactory condition — the fourth highest share in the country among the 44 states and Puerto Rico that had high hazard dams in bad shape.

Of the 132 dams that could be trouble, more than half are owned by local governments. Many of the rest are privately owned.

The threat is not only theoretical. Since the beginning of 2014, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality has counted 42 dams that have failed. At least nine others have been drained, sometimes in face of imminent hazard.

Some failures have been very public, like when the Trace State Park Lake dam gave way in Pontotoc County in July 2015, leading officials to drain the lake. Fishermen and water skiers have been waiting on repairs since, even as problems were found with the main drainage pipe and more of the earthen dam collapsed.

In February 2016, a 130-foot-wide breach opened in a dam at Piney Woods School in Rankin County, sending a wall of water washing across U.S. 49 and sweeping at least two cars off one of Mississippi’s major arteries. No one was injured.

Mississippi’s high hazard dams in poor or unsatisfactory condition are spread among 37 counties, many of which run along the escarpment where hills tumble down into the flat Mississippi Delta. Rural Carroll County has 22 of those dams.

The federal government paid for extensive dam and channelization work in central and northeast Mississippi during the 1960s and 1970s, trying to control erosion and flash flooding. Now, 122 of these watershed dams are classified as high hazard, with maintenance the responsibility of often comatose drainage districts. Carroll County’s Abiaca Creek drainage district alone has 10 high-hazard dams, including two that failed in one night of heavy rain during Tropical Storm Gordon in September 2018.

“The majority of the drainage districts are no longer effective due to a lack of sufficient funding and vacant commissioner positions,” said Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Robbie Wilbur. “The age and lack of maintenance have led to the deterioration of many watershed dams across the state.”

Another hot spot is Lauderdale County, which has 16 high-hazard dams in poor or unsatisfactory condition, including several that threaten stores, warehouses or homes. Northeast of downtown Meridian, officials had to write their own emergency action plan on how to notify and evacuate 72 downstream residents if the dam failed at Druid Lake — something that is supposed to be an owner’s responsibility. Statewide, more than a third of the high hazard dams in poor or unsatisfactory condition didn’t have an emergency action plan as of last year.

South of I-20 in Meridian, a pair of interlinked dams threaten 32 homes and businesses, including five motels along the highway. The upper dam, Mirror Lake, failed this spring, after a 2018 that was Meridian’s 10th wettest on record.

“I’d lay awake at night, worrying about the dam being breached,” said property manager Sherry Howell.

Water started oozing down the face of the dam, leading her to activate the emergency plan. Ultimately, the drain pipe through their earthen embankment was found to be leaking, and the owner paid to have the dam dug open and the lake drained

“It was a beautiful lake, too,” said Howell, whose home overlooks what is now a muddy field.

Howell said state regulators have approved a plan to rebuild, although work has been stalled recently by heavy rain.

Downstream is the older Lakemont Lake, owned by residents of a surrounding subdivision. Residents say the lake was partially drained several years ago, although it has refilled with rainwater. A series of PVC pipes are supposed to siphon off water, but state inspectors found in late 2017 that the siphon wasn’t working. Residents say the association doesn’t have enough money for more extensive repairs.

State officials say subdivision lakes can be trouble. For example, in Olive Branch, a developer built a dam and attempted a legally flawed transfer to a homeowners’ association. A court ruled the transfer illegal, finding the dam belonged to unknown heirs of the original developer. Since then, a Lowe’s Home Improvement store has been built directly below the dam, which is one of dozens statewide that has too small a spillway to handle the outflow from the heaviest likely rain event.

In Meridian, Nan Casiciaro lives in a house directly below the Lakemont dam and has a soap and candle business next door. Although inspectors cite the dam as unsatisfactory due to an eroded spillway, noting Casciaro’s house as particularly in danger, the longtime resident is unconcerned.

“I’m not worried about living down here below it,” Casciaro said, adding that she’s reassured by frequent inspections that may actually be a sign of concern by engineers. “I don’t think it will ever break.”

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