It’s a Dam Shame…

Wolf Creek Dam, via USCGAUX

The role of Tennessee’s many dams played in the floods that caused devastation and destruction across the state earlier this month has been a hot topic over the past several days.

Yesterday, the Nashville City Paper reported Rep. Jim Cooper (TN=05) asked if the disaster was manmade. He joined Senator Lamar Alexander’s call to inspect dams in the state to determine their role in the disaster. From the article:

Making a slideshow presentation to members of the Rotary Club of Nashville, Cooper posed the question: Was this a manmade disaster?

Stopping short of answering the question directly, Cooper said one school of thought suggests it was not. After all, no one anticipated the record level of rain collected by the 42 Tennessee counties officially authorized as disaster areas by the federal government.

Then again, Cooper continued, the National Weather Service failed to register an accurate forecast, demonstrated poor coordination with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and most troubling of all, no one was warned of the degree of flooding that could occur.

“Who was warned about this?” Cooper asked the audience. “Almost no one, and that’s the spooky thing about it.”

State Senator Roy Herron is also interested in what role the dams might have played in the statewide flooding. He’s calling for non-federal dams to be inspected and seeking to change a law that exempted many dams across the state. From the article:

Herron, D-Dresden, said he was told the state has 70 high-hazard, non-federal dams not being inspected due to exemptions allowed in the Safe Dams Act of 1973.

Eight of those dams are in West Tennessee, 49 in Middle Tennessee and 13 in East Tennessee.

A high-hazard rating means people would likely die if the dam fails.

Many of the 70 dams qualify for what is known as a farm-pond exemption, which discontinues state inspections after a certain amount of time.


Tennessee has more than 1,200 non-federal dams, but more than 500 are exempt from regulation.

Herron hopes the state will change the law and require all high-hazard dams to be inspected annually.

“I’ve not given up on legislation during this session, but, realistically, time is running short because the session could end next week,” Herron said.

This may have been a “500 year event”, but rather than an excuse to not inspect, that’s a prime reason to inspect dams, federal and non-federal, across the state. No one will ever know the role, if any, they played in the flooding, nor will they know if the dams are still fully functional and safe until these inspections occur.

The reality is, we can’t afford to wait until the next disaster to find out.

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