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Oklahoma dam regulators call on Congress to continue safety program

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Oklahoma dam regulators call on Congress to continue safety program

Sep 21, 2023 | 6:30 am ET
By Mindy Ragan Wood
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Oklahoma dam regulators call on Congress to continue safety program
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Overholser Dam in Oklahoma City is one of thousands state regulators monitor. The National Dam Safety Program, which provides funds for state programs, is set to expire later this month. (Photo by Mindy Ragan Wood/Oklahoma Voice)

State regulators are calling on Congress to continue a program that helps ward off dam failures in Oklahoma.

The National Dam Safety Program works with states to support local dam failure prevention programs. But it is set to expire on Sept. 30, Oklahoma water resource officials said this week. The federal program was adopted in 1996.

Congressional lawmakers have submitted H.R. 5104, which has bipartisan support, to reauthorize the program through 2028.

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board relies on federal funds to operate the state’s dam safety program, said Zachary Hollandsworth, the board’s dam safety manager. The board oversees more than 4,700 dams to monitor their condition.

On average, the board has received about $350,000 per year from the state assistance grant,  Hollandsworth said in an email. The grant provides 75% of the funding for four employees.

It primarily works with dam owners to keep them in compliance with state regulations, Hollandsworth said.

State law requires owners to hire an engineer to annually inspect dams. Dams identified as high hazard must be inspected every year and every three years for significant hazard dams. Dam failures that could cause loss of human life are considered high hazard, while significant dams pose economic loss and disruption to lifeline facilities, such as hospitals and major highways.

State staff review inspection reports, tracks the condition of dams, and issues orders to bring them into compliance with regulatory standards. They also review plans for dam construction, changes or repairs and removal.

The board offers a free dam inspection program for low hazard dams, which must be inspected every five years.

“The number of inspections we do for low hazard dams is very low compared to the number we have in our inventory, (less than) 1% per year, and is mostly done as both an outreach tool and a service to those dam owners,” Hollandsworth said.

In 2022, staff received 112  inspection reports for high hazard dams and approved construction for 17 projects. The previous year, they received 98 high hazard reports and approved 8 dam construction projects.