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State's dams show need for repairs

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahoma's dams have received about $1 million in repairs over the past five years, but the state's most critical dams need more than $200 million in repairs, according to a published report.

Federal dam records show the state regulates about 165 dams categorized as high-hazard, meaning their failure could threaten the lives of nearby residents. Safety experts said none of the dams are in immediate danger of failing.

State-regulated high-hazard dams have problems with seepage, erosion and uncontrolled vegetation growth, said Cecil Bearden, a dam safety engineer for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.

``Many of the high-hazard dams have had maintenance issues for a long period of time. So long that it has turned into a repair issue,'' Bearden said. ``Owners will defer maintenance to save money, and then this deferred maintenance becomes a major issue five years down the road.''

In Massachusetts, officials worked for a week to save the town of Taunton, which was threatened by a dam that dated to 1832. If the old Whittenton Pond Dam had failed, a six-foot wall of water could have descended on the town _ a scenario state officials said is possible in Oklahoma.

``All you've got to do is look at the worried look on people's faces in Massachusetts, where they don't know how to make this dam stay put,'' said Lori Spragens, executive director for the nonprofit Association of Dam Safety Officials.

``You can look at those people and see them wondering why they didn't fix this long ago,'' Spragens said.

Most of Oklahoma's high-hazard dams _ about three in four _ are five miles or less from the communities most likely to be affected by a failure, The Oklahoman found in a computer-assisted analysis of federal dam records.

The high-hazard dams are among more than 4,600 dams across the state. They help contain floodwaters, provide drinking water, generate electricity and prevent soil erosion.

Conservation districts, municipalities and homeowner associations own most of the state-regulated high-hazard dams in Oklahoma. Most are earthen structures. More than half were built before 1960 and one in five were built during the 1930s and earlier.

Among the most high-profile, high-hazard dams in Oklahoma is the massive earthen dam holding back 24.4 billion gallons of water at Lake Hefner, which Bearden said is in good condition. The 122-foot dam, completed in 1943 and owned by Oklahoma City, overlooks a major highway and neighborhoods built in recent years.

Bearden said an earthen dam owned by Tecumseh near Shawnee, completed in 1934, needs about $200,000 in repairs. Erosion of the dam's upstream side is occurring, vegetation is overgrown and the spillway has needed repairs since 1978.

Lack of care is a problem nationwide. Officials said municipally owned dams need rehabilitation, but the money is not available.

``We know that when we ask (dam safety officials) what their major issues are, they will say funding for rehabilitation is at the top,'' Spragens said.

Legislation authored by state Sen. Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant, and Rep. Don Armes, R-Faxon, would provide $10 million to help rehabilitate high-hazard dams the state conservation districts own.

With federal matching dollars, the measure would generate about $30 million, said Mike Thralls, executive director of the of the state Conservation Commission. The money would repair about 50 dams owned by conservation districts statewide.
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