Fluvanna dam at risk of failure is one of 1,800 in Virginia that pose unknown risks

Last state inspection of privately owned structure occurred in 1990

By: - March 25, 2022 12:05 am

Erosion at the McIver Dam in Fluvanna County. (Fluvanna County)

A privately owned dam in Fluvanna that officials have been working to keep from failing since Monday is one of more than 1,800 dams in Virginia whose risks to the public and property are unknown. 

Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation spokesman Dave Neudeck said the agency doesn’t have an accurate hazard classification for the McIver dam or a study of what areas would be inundated or otherwise directly affected by its failure. 

The last recorded state inspection of the structure occurred in 1990 at the request of the dam owner. 

Both the classification and the dam break inundation study are required by state regulations. Regulations also require that a dam inspection report be filed with DCR every year, with inspections by a professional engineer every one to six years depending on hazard classification. 

The lack of information on the McIver Dam isn’t unusual: DCR officials say hundreds of dams in Virginia lack formal assessments of what hazards they pose. 

“Currently there are more than 1,800 dams in the DCR inventory that are believed to be of regulatory size, but do not have a regulatorily required hazard classification determination,” wrote Wendy Howard Cooper, the department’s director of dam safety and floodplain management, in an email to the Mercury this November. “Of those 1,800, it is anticipated that at least 400 will be determined to be high-hazard dams.” 

High-hazard dams are those whose failure would result in loss of life and/or significant economic damage. 

A Monday alert

The McIver Dam was built in 1969 on private property in Fluvanna. A 1975 inventory of U.S. dams by the Army Corps of Engineers notes that the 22-foot dam had been constructed out of earth and had a maximum capacity of 150 acre-feet, which is equivalent to roughly 49 million gallons of water. 

All dams in Virginia that are at least six feet high and have a maximum capacity of 50 or more acre-feet or are at least 25 feet high with a maximum capacity of 15 or more acre-feet are subject to state regulation. 

While the McIver Dam had previously been used to impound water, by February 2022 it was no longer doing so, and the owner reached out to DCR about decommissioning the structure, according to the agency. 

Then, “sometime between February and March 21, 2022 the dam refilled,” the agency wrote in response to a list of questions from the Mercury. 

That day, according to the Daily Progress, an agent of the owner alerted state officials to concerns regarding the amount of water the dam was holding. 

After an engineer from the Department of Conservation and Recreation visited the site, “they determined that the dam was in imminent threat of breaching at some point,” Fluvanna County Administrator Eric Dahl told the Mercury Tuesday. 

No residences lie immediately downstream of the McIver dam, but both the state-maintained Bremo Road and Dominion Energy’s now-closed Bremo Power Station would be in the path of floodwaters in the case of failure. 

While the Bremo site contains 6 million cubic yards of coal ash, Dominion spokesperson Kenneth Holt said the storage ponds where ash is held are not “down gradient from the dam” and were not expected to be affected by a breach. 

On Monday evening, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office authorized Fluvanna County “to take all prudent actions necessary to alleviate the imminent failure of this dam.” In an email to the county from Howard Cooper, the agency also promised to reimburse the county “for all costs incurred to drain the impoundment and breach the dam.” 

By midnight, workers had a pump in place to draw down water levels, with two other pumps on the way. As of Wednesday afternoon, water levels had fallen between 12 and 18 inches, said Neudeck. 

“The main focus right now is to ultimately pump down as much of the lake as we can, and then ultimately, per the governor’s authorization, the dam’s going to have to be breached,” said Dahl Tuesday. “It’s going to have to be opened up at some point, but that will be long after the water has been drained to an acceptable level.” 

Gaps in the record

State officials have long been aware of the dearth of information on dams within the commonwealth. 

In 2011, DCR officials preparing a report for the General Assembly on “costs, funding and prioritization of Virginia dams to meet minimum public safety standards,” mailed surveys to 1,264 dam owners. The agency received responses for only about 10 percent of the known regulated dams. 

A 2019 report by DCR in response to an executive order by then-Gov. Ralph Northam found that Virginia’s dam safety program “by a number of measures … falls short” and urged the state to make it “more robust to protect the lives and property of Virginians.” 

In particular, the agency noted that more than half of Virginia’s roughly 2,000 regulated dams are privately owned. Of those, 17 percent are classified as high hazard or significant hazard, while “another 66 percent have an unknown hazard classification.” 

“During the period from Jan. 1, 2018 until Jan. 31, 2019, there were 18 reported dam incidents and failures,” wrote DCR. “Not all incidents and failures were to privately owned dams, but 45 percent of those failures related to high or significant hazard dams.” 

The last fatalities linked to dam failures in Virginia occurred in 1995, when two people were killed after the Timberlake Dam in Campbell County failed following a heavy rainstorm. 

More recently, 13 homes in Roanoke were evacuated in 2020 over fears that the Spring Valley Dam would fail and 150 homes in Chesterfield were evacuated after worries about the Falling Creek Reservoir Dam, although neither was ultimately breached. Others weren’t so lucky: a June 2021 rainstorm caused the partial failure of a state-owned dam at Chandler’s Mill Pond in Westmoreland.

DCR officials have previously said they are aware of the increasing threats posed to dams by more intense and frequent rainstorms linked to climate change

The 2019 report offered a variety of recommendations to improve dam safety in Virginia, including providing additional resources for state engineers regulating dams and establishing a funding source to help pay for repairs to high- and significant-hazard dams.

“The number of dams in disrepair across the commonwealth continues to rise as does the cost of maintaining and upgrading these dams,” the agency wrote. “Even in 2011, an estimated $41 million price tag just to bring privately owned high hazard dams into compliance with regulations would require a significant investment from private dam owners.” 

Then-Gov. Ralph Northam sought and secured an additional $15  million from the General Assembly for the Dam Safety, Flood Prevention and Protection Assistance Fund in 2020 and in his outgoing budget this winter requested an additional $20 million for the fund as well as $45.5 million for the rehabilitation of dams owned by soil and water conservation districts and money for three additional dam safety and inspection positions. While the General Assembly has yet to agree on a final budget this year, the House proposal would strip out the $20 million in additional fund dollars and cut the amount allocated for soil and water conservation district dam repairs to $25.5 million.  

 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing and previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress. She is the recipient of a first place award for explanatory reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists and has twice been honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

MORE FROM AUTHOR