A dam that the county industrial authority purchased over a decade ago to utilize as a potential water source has turned into a headache for county leaders as they look for a way to upgrade the potential hazard of the dam at the least cost to taxpayers.
About 30 people attended a public hearing in the public meeting room of the historic county courthouse to discuss the situation last week. Those present included lake property owners, concerned citizens, board of commission members, county engineers and IDA members.
The county took ownership of the Seagraves Lake Dam in 2007 with the intention of repairing it and using the lake as a water source. Brian Kimsey and Clayton Hunnicutt of Carter Engineering gave a presentation to the crowd, explaining that the dam is considered a Category I “high hazard dam” and that they have since determined that the lake is not a feasible water source for the county, leaving the IDA with having to upgrade the dam to mitigate the potential hazard in the event of a dam breach.
Kimsey said there are two major concerns: minimizing the reduction in the lake level for property owners along the lake and while also minimizing costs to taxpayers for repairing the dam.
When state senator Frank Ginn became the IDA’s executive director over a year ago, he requested that engineers do a study to determine how many homes would be in danger should a breach occur. They have since found that only one home would be affected.
Several meetings were held in recent months with lake property owners and with the homeowner of the endangered home to discuss the IDA’s options.
Ginn said the board’s primary objective now is to mitigate the hazard at the least expense to taxpayers. That option seems to be to repair the dam at a cost of about $25,000, which would make the dam a Category II under the state’s Georgia Safe Dams regulations, with no further action necessary, according to Ginn and the engineers.
Other options include lowering the dam, which would take the 29-acre lake down to 10 acres or less, purchase and demolish the home in the breach zone, or remove the dam completely, essentially destroying the Seagraves Lake.
Ginn said according to auditors, the county has already spent over $400,000 on the dam since taking ownership of it.
Ahead of the meeting, lake property owners sent a letter to the IDA and board of commissioners requesting that the IDA make a “sincere effort to do the right thing to honor the original contract with the Seagraves family,” which included saving the lake; that a total breach of the dam not be done; that the IDA make a “sincere effort” to purchase the downstream home by negotiating with the homeowner for a price for the home and to declare the flood area a hazard zone to prevent any other habitable structures from being placed there.
There were also discussions about the history of the lake and what it means to the community in terms of recreation and as a means of water supply for the volunteer fire departments.
Several members of the audience questioned why the dam could not simply be returned to the Seagraves family, leaving them with the burden of repairing it and said they objected to any more of their tax money being used toward the project.
Ginn pointed out that the only difference between a Category I dam and a Category II dam is that with a Cat II there is no habitable structure where there would be an imminent loss of life. He said officials realize how important the dam and the lake is to the community and that he is working as both the IDA director and as a senator to mitigate the situation.
Ginn told the group that he plans to introduce legislation to the Georgia legislature this session that would place the burden on any property owner who wants to build or move a habitable structure into the breach zone of a Category II dam to place upgrades (at their expense) on that structure to withstand the potential hazard of a dam breach. He said this would prevent Category II dams from being placed back on the Category I “hazardous dams list” when someone builds in the breach zone and would save the taxpayers the expense of hardening those dams, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each.
“This (legislation) would be a tremendous cost savings to the taxpayers in Georgia,” Ginn said. He said the state currently owns 357 dams, which while they are a tremendous cost, are also a tremendous public benefit to the environment and to the public in the form of recreational opportunities.
Ginn said the IDA is expected to vote on the next step with the Seagraves Lake Dam after this legislative session is over.