The town of Lake Lure is preparing to undertake a cost repair project on its dam after years of what the town's engineering consultant has called "neglect." Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

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With a dam already in need of major repairs due to decades of neglect, the town of Lake Lure took extra precautions ahead of expected heavy rains from the remnants of Hurricane Florence this month.

Those steps, as well as less rain than expected, paid off as the dam came through the event without incident, according to Mayor Kevin Cooley. He also credits adjustments the town made in its response after dealing with the remnants of Tropical Storm Alberto in May.

Although examination of the dam shows no sign of additional deterioration, the bigger challenge for Lake Lure lies ahead, as the town works with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to complete several newly mandated studies of its aging dam. These additional measures have delayed the expected start of construction work on an estimated $5 million in repairs by about four months, Cooley estimated.

Finding the funding to do that work is also proving more challenging than expected for the town of about 1,200 residents, the mayor said.

River flooding following Florence has affected dozens of dams throughout North Carolina. Many of these dams are similar to Lake Lure in being considered a “high risk” dam by the state — meaning that their failure would be catastrophic, not that it would be more likely than the failure of dams rated as lower risk. But recent revelations of serious flaws in the Lake Lure dam due to years of inadequate maintenance makes this dam a matter of unusual concern.

Reversing dam neglect

Cooley, a retired civil engineer, last year was elected mayor of Lake Lure, a town in western Rutherford County near the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, just east of the Eastern Continental Divide. The picturesque mountain lake town has drawn tourists for years and been the site of multiple Hollywood productions, including the 1980s hit “Dirty Dancing.”

Around the same time as his election, town leaders recognized the need to change their approach to maintaining the dam across the Rocky Broad River that creates the lake for which the town is known.

But without the dam holding back the river, the man-made vista would disappear. Worse, if the dam failed, the effect could be catastrophic for areas downstream.

The town owns the dam, which also generates electrical power that the town sells to Duke Energy. For years, the town had done consistent maintenance on the power-generation equipment, but had largely ignored upkeep of the dam structure itself.

For more than a decade leading up to 2017, state environmental regulators peppered the town with urgent notices to conduct studies, provide data, conduct maintenance and provide the state with documentation. But those messages went almost entirely ignored, based on a Carolina Public Press review of correspondence between the town and state agencies.

With recent changes in key staff and town government leadership positions, Cooley and others acted to take concerns about the dam more seriously, hiring regional dam expert Dan Marks to conduct a series of studies late last year.

Marks pulled no punches, warning the town that a policy of neglect over many years had resulted in a dam that was potentially compromised and would require expensive repairs to correct. The town committed to following Marks’ recommendations and to working closely with DEQ to ensure that it was both in full compliance with regulations and that its all-important dam was secure.

Although the town expected a long and costly process of rectifying past mistakes, Cooley said in March that he was optimistic that work on the dam would get underway before too long.

In April, the town hired engineering firm Schnabel as consultants, while awaiting DEQ feedback on the repairs that Marks had recommended.

Then, in mid-May, heavy rains soaked Western North Carolina, causing flash floods and mudslides. Two weeks later, the remnants of Tropical Storm Alberto poured down on the already waterlogged region. Areas just upstream from Lake Lure, including the towns of Bat Cave and Chimney Rock Village, experienced severe flooding.

Heavy equipment works to repair flooding damage in Chimney Rock State Park following severe flooding in May. The park is located a short distance west of Lake Lure, upstream on the Rocky Broad River. Courtesy of Chimney Rock State Park.

‘We learned a lesson’

“Alberto was actually the bigger event for Lake Lure” in comparison with Florence, Cooley said last week.

Throughout the May storm, town officials kept Marks and Schnabel employees informed of its actions. But as flooding conditions peaked, concerns that the Rocky Broad River would completely “overtop” the dam increased, the mayor said.

The dam is designed to allow modest overtopping at certain points along its span and can even handle some overtopping at its highest point, Cooley said. But having that occur during the unpredictable and increasing flooding from Alberto seemed risky.

“Because of its age,” Cooley said, “we would prefer not to have it overtop.”

As a result, the town acted to rapidly release water, which caused limited flooding downstream, though far less than would have occurred if the dam had failed.

As it was, the effort to draw the lake down by a few feet during the ongoing storm wasn’t easy. “We had to have all three gates open just to keep up with the storm,” Cooley said.

The experience proved instructive when another and potentially more dangerous storm approached in September. “We learned a lesson (from Alberto) that we attempted to apply,” Cooley said.

Without knowing for certain whether the town would receive the worst rainfall that Florence could dish out, Cooley and other town leaders became concerned about potential heavy rainfall along the escarpment that forms the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This is the watershed from which the Rocky Broad River flows. Because of its elevation, storms passing through the area frequently drop far more rain along the escarpment than in surrounding areas.

Weighing options and wanting to avoid having to release water in the middle of a flooding event again, Cooley said the town created additional storage capacity in the lake a full week ahead of Florence’s arrival.

“It seemed to work out really well,” Cooley said. No flooding occurred downstream from Lake Lure. Afterward, the town was able to let the lake refill naturally, reaching full pond again by Sept. 18, and allowing the town to again operate its hydroelectric generator.

The roadway over Lake Lure dam is both structurally important and in poor condition, according to engineering consultant Dan Marks. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Extra studies, extra costs and funding challenges

Although the town had hoped to have construction on its massive repair project underway by now, DEQ asked for additional preparations. A hydrological and hydraulic study and development of a new Emergency Action Plan had to completed by Aug. 1.

DEQ has given the town several additional steps to complete before Dec. 1. Altogether, Cooley said, these steps will amount to about $350,000 in additional expenses before the town can begin repairs.

One key measure is an underwater examination of the dam’s face, which was not included in Marks’ study last year. Another project will see the town develop a 3-D model to assess the dam’s material structure and strength, and to identify how it would stand up during a future seismic event or major storm.

A May 21 letter from DEQ cited the dam’s recent history as one reason for so many additional precautions, including “the leaks that have been occurring or years between the joints of the upstream face, the earthquake that weakened the structure, the shear age of the concrete” and other issues. The letter also noted concerns about whether the dam could withstand earthquakes and hurricanes.

The mayor seemed to take the DEQ mandates in stride. However, he expressed irritation over unexpected difficulties in obtaining the necessary funding to proceed with the repairs.

“I would have thought that with the availability of funds for parks and 101 other projects, there would be funds available for critical infrastructure,” Cooley said. “I’m pretty disappointed. This project involves safety and flood control.” He also noted the economic importance of the dam, which generates both electrical power and tourism jobs.

Cooley said he hoped that lawmakers in Raleigh and Washington would give thought to providing more funding or local governments that have urgent infrastructure projects like this one.

Despite these challenges, Cooley remained optimistic. “Ultimately, we will find funding out there,” he said. The town is now working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the hope that on of that agency’s programs will provide much of the needing funds to repair the dam, according to the mayor, who also noted that the town is working with its congressional delegation to seek additional funding options.

For more information

Urgent dam repairs may cost town of Lake Lure millions, March 21, 2018


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