Bastrop State Park dam failure highlights safety

(Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — More than 35 million gallons of water barreled down a Central Texas creek Monday evening, after flooding caused a century-old dam to burst in Bastrop State Park.

“(The dam) just got overtopped. We had such a tremendous downpour on wet ground,” Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape told KXAN. “The spillway couldn’t handle the volume of water going in the lake…Once the dam became overtopped, it just became too much.”

Pape said he is not aware of any other dams in Bastrop that are in danger of failing.

But while nobody was injured, the dam break highlights the variety of dangers posed by powerful floodwaters in a state where floods are common, and thousands of aging dams are exempt from regular state agency inspection.

The Bastrop dam was last inspected in 2005, according to data from the National Dam Inventory. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality conducts the bulk of all dam inspections in Texas, but more than 3,200 Texas dams are exempt from TCEQ inspection, said Warren Samuelson, dam safety program manager at the agency.

TCEQ breaks down dams into three categories: low, significant and high hazard potential.

Of the dams the TCEQ does inspect, Samuelson said the agency focuses on high-hazard dams, which could impact seven or more people that may be in homes, or businesses, or on roads downstream, among other criteria.

“(A low-hazard dam) may be under our jurisdiction, but we don’t typically inspect them because they are low hazard,” Samuelson said. “We only have the resources to look at high- and significant-hazard dams.”

The Bastrop State Park Lake dam had low-hazard potential, meaning it did not have people or roads that would be affected if it failed, Samuelson said.

The TCEQ has about 4,000 dams under its jurisdiction, Samuelson said. After the TCEQ inspects its dams, the findings are reported to the owner of the dam, who must then make necessary fixes. The TCEQ also holds workshops to help teach people how to maintain dams.

Dams are scattered throughout Central Texas, according to this map from the National Inventory of Dams.
Dams are scattered throughout Central Texas, according to this map from the National Inventory of Dams. Each blue dot represents a dam of varying size.

About 97 percent of Texas’ 7,310 dams are earthen. Most dams are privately owned and have low-hazard potential, according to the National Dam Inventory, which is maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The inventory shows many dams in the state haven’t been inspected for more than a decade and some haven’t been inspected at all.

Samuelson said those dams that do not list an inspection date likely haven’t been inspected because they are low hazard, or they do not fall under TCEQ jurisdiction anymore.

As of Monday morning, Samuelson said he doesn’t have concerns about any other Central Texas dams, and his office had not heard of any other issues associated with dams.

Nearly all areas of Bastrop State Park are currently closed, agency spokesman Steve Lightfoot said.

“We are in the process of inspecting the park and there will definitely be some cleanup involved,” Lightfoot said.

Pape said the lake is an important part of the aesthetics of the dam and officials will be looking to rebuild it.

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