State agency wants to boost dam inspection authority

An excavator breaks a log jam in April 2013 above the Three Mile Dam on the Umatilla River north of Hermiston. The Oregon Water Resources Department is considering seeking tougher dam inspection laws.

Laws governing dam safety in Oregon have become outdated, prompting state regulators to seek upgraded authority to inspect and order repairs to the structures.

In the next legislative session, the Oregon Water Resources Department plans to ask lawmakers to revise dam safety statutes that were originally written nearly 90 years ago.

The ability to enter property without a warrant to conduct dam inspections is one request the agency is considering, said Racquel Rancier, senior policy coordinator for OWRD.

Currently about a dozen dams in Oregon haven’t been inspected by OWRD in recent years because the landowners denied entry to their property, said Keith Mills, the department’s dam safety engineer.

Oregon has jurisdiction over dams that are at least 10 feet high and store more than 9.2 acre-feet of water, he said. The state inspects 969 such structures, while the federal government inspects 285 dams.

More than 25 percent of state- and federally-inspected dams in Oregon are rated as high or significant hazards, which is based on their potential to cause lost life and property damage, rather than physical condition.

Following are other dam safety laws under consideration:

• Landowners may be required to obtain OWRD’s permission to modify or remove dams under the supervision of an engineer, to ensure such changes are done safely.

• The agency may impose a requirement for people building lagoons — such as those storing manure or wastewater — to submit their final designs to OWRD before starting construction. The department now lacks authority for structures that don’t involve water rights.

Currently, OWRD must automatically schedule an administrative hearing when dam repairs are needed, which the agency considers a time-consuming process that could endanger public safety.

The agency may instead require the dam owner to get an “engineering analysis” of the structure without scheduling a hearing, or to hold a hearing only if the owner objects to the repair plans.

Under another proposal, the agency may order the immediate correction of unsafe conditions at potentially hazardous dams by reducing water levels, opening valves or taking similar actions.

“That is something we can’t currently do if we know it needs to be done,” Rancier said.

Imposing civil penalties for dam safety problems would provide an “intermediary” approach to induce needed repairs, rather than the only current option of imposing an order, she said.

“They really only provide a hammer,” Rancier said of current laws.

At this point, these ideas are only in draft form and will be refined based on feedback, she said.

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