Emergency-action plans lacking for some Arizona dams | Special report
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Special report

Emergency-action plans lacking for some Arizona dams

On this breezy spring day, Melvin Berry, a Williams resident for the past 27 years, casts his fishing line into Santa Fe Reservoir. Berry said this spot, directly behind a 42-feet-high masonry dam, is one of his favorite places to fish.

"I spend quite a bit of time here," he said.

Not far away, along a road overlooking Santa Fe Dam, a handful of residents watch wind-blown water cascade over its spillway into Cataract Creek. The flow trickles through a mobile home community directly downstream before drying up in a channel that cuts through the edge of downtown.

Built in 1892 and almost as old as this northern Arizona town, the dam provides drinking water and a serene place to fish and enjoy the views.

"When it starts overflowing and filling the creeks and the people see it coming over the spillway, sometimes it gets exciting," said Bill Pruett, the Williams public works water superintendent. "You'll see a lot of people watching that … It does get impressive."

To those who regulate Arizona dams, Santa Fe Dam merits special attention because if it should fail it poses a threat to lives and property immediately downstream. As such, its owner, the city of Williams, is required by Arizona law to have an updated emergency-action plan on file with the state.

But since 2007, the city hasn't finalized required updates to emergency-action plans for Santa Fe Dam and three other dams it owns. The Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR), which inspects dams and is responsible for ensuring that owners have emergency-action plans on file, lists the dams as "safety deficient" as a result, though its documentation notes no structural problems.

A Cronkite News Service review of ADWR records found that as of late April owners of 14 dams considered to pose high or significant risk to people, property or the environment didn't have updated emergency action plans on file with the agency's Surface Water Division.

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While the law provides for fines against dam owners who fail to comply, officials in the division haven't done so even when owners of dams, such as those in Williams, have been out of compliance for years.

Agencies such as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are responsible for larger dams owned by the federal government in Arizona, such as Hoover Dam. But ADWR is responsible for monitoring the safety of 245 dams around the state, ranging from small dams of earth or rock to larger structures such as Santa Fe Dam.

Of those dams, 100 are classified as high risk, meaning there is potential for loss of life if they fail. Thirty are classified as significant risk, meaning their failure could destroy property, damage the environment or cause economic harm. The law requiring emergency-action plans applies to both types of dams.

According to the Association of Dam Safety Officials, a national nonprofit group, Arizona ranks high nationally for having current emergency-action plans for a large percentage of dams. In 2009, more than 90 percent of Arizona's high-hazard dams had emergency-action plans in place compared with the national average of about 55 percent, according to the association, which collects annual data from states' dam safety officials.

The CNS review found that owners of five high or significant risk dams in Arizona had emergency-action plans in the draft phase and six had plans on file that had been deemed outdated. Three dams had no plans on file.

Although the law requiring emergency-action plans also mandates that owners submit copies to the state Division of Emergency Management for review, an official there said the office doesn't have procedures in place for tracking compliance or reviewing plans.

Mike Johnson, an ADWR assistant director in charge of the Surface Water Division, said Arizona has a strong record of compliance on emergency-action plans compared to other other states with laws requiring them. He represents Arizona with the Association of Dam Safety Officials, which creates the rankings.

Johnson said officials would rather work with dam owners to update their plans rather than forcing compliance and assigning civil penalties.

"I think we'd rather see someone spending their money and time on developing a plan than spending their money and time defending themselves in court," he said.

The National Dam Safety Program administered by FEMA has set a goal to have emergency-action plans on file for every high-hazard dam in the nation by 2012.

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"I don't believe that that goal will be met, but we are making progress," Johnson said.

John France, vice president of San Francisco-based URS Corp., an engineering design firm, said a completed, thorough emergency-action plan can save lives in the unlikely event of a dam failure. He recently led a seminar on emergency-action plans for the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

"If you take one [dam] individually and it were to fail," France said, "the likelihood that people would have their safety threatened or that there would be severe flooding and damage downstream depends on the circumstances."

The plans

Johnson said Arizona's comparatively high compliance rate is due in part to its comprehensive dam safety law, which was updated in 2000 to specify what constitutes an emergency-action plan.

Six elements must be in each plan: a chart showing how owners would go about making sure officials and the public are notified; a map or maps showing areas that would be inundated under different scenarios; a delineation of any unsafe conditions, procedures or potential triggering events identified by ADWR; an explanation of the owner's responsibilities for maintaining and monitoring the dam; a description of the dam and reservoir; and a discussion of emergency supplies and equipment on hand.

While most of those requirements deal with procedures, creating inundation maps requires engineers. Johnson said those maps can cost between $5,000 and $100,000, depending on the complexity. Grants ADWR once provided to help owners create inundation maps have fallen to budget cuts.

Brett Howey, a Phoenix-based unit manager for AMEC, a British engineering and project management consultancy, said owners of many dams, especially private ones, can't afford to develop inundation maps. Meanwhile, he said, both regulators and dam owners nationally are facing insufficient resources.

"Many of the state governments are reducing programs and reducing the number of qualified people that they have engaged in doing dam inspections," Howey said. "They aren't there to really assist dam owners in their projects."

The state regulates dams that can store water more than 25 feet deep and dams that have the capacity to store more than 50 acre-feet of water.

The Surface Water Division is responsible for inspecting high-hazard dams annually, significant-hazard dams every three years and low/very low-hazard dams every five years. When inspectors go to high or significant hazard dam, Johnson said, they routinely ask for an updated emergency-action plan and will ask for revisions if one doesn't cover changes such as new officials or personnel responsible for a dam or development in the area.

Draft stage

Since the state law was updated in 2000, Williams has yet to have emergency-action plans approved for its four dams: Santa Fe and City dams, which are high hazard, and Dogtown and West Cataract Creek dams, which are outside of town and considered significant hazard. However, it had provided the state a notification chart that listed who would be notified in emergencies, Johnson said.

City officials have been working with the state since 2007 to create a formal emergency-action plan.

Public Works Director Glenn Cornwell said the city is working with several neighboring communities and the Navajo Nation to create a multi-jurisdictional hazard mitigation plan under a federal program aimed at reducing losses to lives and property. The program, created by the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000, provides grants to help local governments plan for emergencies and address hazards.

Cornwell said the emergency-action plan drafts are about 50 percent complete and that the city intends to finish them and get ADWR's approval by the end of the year. The city has already completed inundation maps.

Even without a formal plan in place, Cornwell said city officials are prepared to act in an emergency.

"We feel like we're able to control and bring the forces to bear should there be a problem," he said. "So we don't feel like we've compromised anything."

The other dam identified by ADWR records as being in draft stage is Seligman Dam, which is on state trust land in Yavapai County and is classified as significant hazard.

ADWR files indicate the Arizona State Land Department is responsible for the dam, which was formerly owned by a private cattle company.

Stephen Williams, director of the Land Department's Natural Resources Division, said it isn't clear who is responsible for completing the emergency-action plan. He said the land department and Yavapai County coordinate responsibility for monitoring the dam and reservoir.

Johnson confirmed that ADWR is working with the State Land Department and the county to ensure that the dam complies with the law.

Outdated plans

The six dams with outdated emergency-action plans took different paths onto the list, including an owner who doesn't see a need to update the plan each year and another who is said to lack the financial resources to update a plan.

The Lone Pine Dam, which crosses Show Low Creek near the Navajo County community of Taylor, took the most winding path of all. After the state cited safety deficiencies back in the 1970s, the county built a new dam several miles downstream, relegating Lone Pine to low/very low hazard and removing the need for an emergency-action plan. Then the county put a road across the old dam, which bumped it back to high hazard.

ADWR records said the dam's emergency-action plan has been outdated since 1994. Though Trent Larson, Navajo County's floodplain administrator, said he doesn't know why the dam is on the list, he added that the county plans to build a bypass bridge this summer so the dam will no longer be high hazard.

Dee Johnson, president of the Silver Creek Irrigation District, said he doesn't have the time to submit a new emergency-action plan each year for Daggs Dam, which creates White Mountain Lake in Navajo County.

He said the dam's emergency-action plan hasn't changed since it was last submitted in 1997, adding that ADWR has sent notifications telling him the dam is considered safety-deficient until the plan is updated.

"I'll probably just look it over, kiss it and send it back," Johnson said. "We have very little to change. We'll do it by summer."

The owner of the Central Detention Dam, a high hazard dam outside of the southeastern Arizona community of Thatcher, hasn't provided an updated emergency-action plan since 1987, according to ADWR files.

Graham County engineer Michael Bryce said the dam is owned by Virginia Claridge, a widow who is unable to maintain responsibility for the dam. While ADWR has asked Graham County to assume responsibility for the dam, Bryce said the county won't because of the liability that comes with owning a dam.

Other dams listed as having outdated plans are:

  • Millett Swale, a high hazard dam that's located near Taylor and owned by the Silver Creek Flood Protection District
  • Colter Reservoir, a high hazard dam near the Apache County community of Greer and owned by Lyman Water Co.
  • Lyman Dam, a high hazard dam located upstream of the Apache County community of St. Johns and owned by Lyman Water Co.

Cronkite News Service made repeated phone calls but was unable to reach owners of those three dams for comment.

ADWR records showed that owners of seven additional dams haven't updated emergency-action plans in a decade or more. Mike Johnson, the assistant director, said the lag suggests that those plans should be updated.

No plans

ADWR had no plans on file for three existing dams, including Cook Reservoir Dam, a 13-foot-high earthen structure south of Safford on property Eastern Arizona College came to own in 2006.

Todd Haynie, a spokesman for the college, said the school acquired Discovery Park without realizing a noncontiguous parcel of land containing the high-hazard dam was also a part of the deal.

In 2007, the state identified deficiencies in the dam, including the absence of an emergency-action plan. According to an ADWR news release, in the event of a severe storm water could build up and cause the dam to fail, posing a threat to 10-15 homes in the area.

Haynie said the school plans to remove the dam and replace it with a smaller structure designed protect homes from flooding and no longer under state jurisdiction.

ADWR used a $50,000 grant in 2007 to pay for the engineering plans to make the change, but Haynie said the school lacks the money at present to move forward with the project.

Haynie said the school is working with ADWR to comply with state law, including providing an emergency-action plan.

"Unfortunately for us, we will probably get this emergency-action plan done about the same time this dam will no longer be a dam anymore," Haynie said.

ADWR has no files on two dams: Judy Wash Retarding Dam, southeast of Safford and owned by the San Jose Canal Co. of the Gila Valley Irrigation District; and Short Creek Southside No. 2 Dam, near the Mohave County community of Colorado City and owned by the Short Creek Southside Irrigation Co.

The dams are classified as significant hazard, meaning they are inspected every three years.

Johnson said ADWR has repeatedly contacted both companies, sending annual notifications that emergency-action plans are required for the dams.

Short Creek Southside Dam No. 1, which is owned by the same company as its sister dam, does have an emergency action plan on file.

Messages left with both companies weren't returned.

Resources & procedures

Over the past several years, ADWR has seen its general fund appropriation drop from $22.7 million to $7.3 million and its staff drop from more than 200 to 97 full-time equivalent employees. Meanwhile, Gov. Jan Brewer has tasked the department with identifying new sources of revenue such as boosting fees like those for inspecting dams.

Johnson said the department used to send out monthly reminders to dam owners without adequate emergency-action plans on file. This was cut to quarterly letters a couple of years ago. Now there is no room in the budget to send any reminders to the dam owners.

"In general we don't have the staff and resources to follow up as timely as we would like to," he said.

Johnson said the cuts haven't interfered with the Surface Water Division's safety inspections of dams.

Meanwhile, the state Division of Emergency Management, which the law tasks specifically with reviewing emergency-action plans submitted by owners, rarely receives them and doesn't review them, said Judy Kioski, a spokeswoman.

Noting that her office works closely with ADWR, she said there isn't much benefit to be derived from submitting plans to the division because its personnel aren't the right people to provide feedback on such plans.

"While the owners are encouraged to submit their plans to us, we only receive maybe a couple plans per year," she said. "ADWR has a more robust database of the dams."

Following the law

Forty miles east of Williams, the city of Flagstaff is preparing an emergency-action plan for the Clay Avenue Detention Basin Dam, which is nearing completion by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is part of the Rio de Flag water conservation project.

"The most difficult and time-consuming thing is the inundation mapping and the dam-failure mapping, said Tom Hieb, a project manager with the city's engineering division, stormwater management section. "We've already done that."

ADWR will review the plan during the dam's final inspection.

Although Hieb said he is confident the dam is safe, he said it's important to know what to in an emergency.

"You wouldn't want to be trying to decide if there was an emergency condition at the dam at that time what you need to do," he said. "You want to have that all planned out beforehand. And that's what's in the emergency-action plan."

Johnson said ADWR will continue working with owners to get approved emergency-action plans on file for all dams overseen by his department.

"What we have found to be the most successful way to enforce that is to provide assistance," Johnson said. "We are going to continue to work with them and ask them what are the obstacles that are preventing them from having these plans and how can we help them."

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Lauren Gambino/Cronkite News Service

In addition to Santa Fe Dam and three other dams around Williams, 11 other dams out of more than 200 regulated by the Arizona Department of Water Resources lack emergency-action plans.

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Emergency-action plan requirements

  • A chart showing how owners would go about making sure officials and the public are notified
  • A map or maps showing areas that would be inundated under different scenarios
  • A delineation of any unsafe conditions, procedures or potential triggering events identified by state officials
  • An explanation of the owner's responsibilities for maintaining and monitoring the dam
  • A description of the dam and reservoir
  • A discussion of emergency supplies and equipment on hand