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FOX43 Reveals: Pennsylvania’s dangerous dams

DAUPHIN COUNTY, Pa. – Pennsylvania has 145 dams that are in poor or unsatisfactory condition. Those dams are considered high-hazard, meaning failure will likely...

DAUPHIN COUNTY, Pa. – Pennsylvania has 145 dams that are in poor or unsatisfactory condition. Those dams are considered high-hazard, meaning failure will likely lead to loss of life. FOX43 Reveals what's being done to upgrade those dams, as people living in high-risk areas are bracing for the next big storm.

“If the dam were to fail, my house would be gone. All the houses near me will be gone,” said Shawn Mann, of Middle Paxton Township.

It is a fear that constantly nags at Mann’s mind. She lives downstream from the DeHart Reservoir—Harrisburg's water supply. The DeHart Dam is considered high-hazard, and high-risk. The State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said it could possibly breach during the next major, tropical storm.

“They’re saying there’d be a 16-foot wall of water that would come through and we would lose everything, including our lives, if we were here,” explained Mann.

Clark’s Creek runs through Mann's backyard. She has seen it flood eight times, cutting off her only exit route: Clarks Valley Road.

RACHEL YONKUNAS: Do you feel like a sitting duck?

SHAWN MANN: Yup! Every day. Every time it rains. We have to make the decision, are we safe or are we not safe? Do we need to get out? We have to do that before the rain starts to fall because my house, in particular, I’m an island. I can’t get out either side.”

Mann said it’s been six years since she and her neighbors have seen an updated Emergency Action Plan. FOX43 reveals those concerns to Capital Region Water, the dam's owner and operator. David Stewart, director of engineering, showed FOX43 their new emergency plans updated in January 2020.

“We feel like if we are going to be facing any kind of risk, we’d be able to get out ahead of it,” explained Stewart.

Capital Region Water is hoping it never has to come to that. Design work is underway to bring the 80-year-old dam into compliance with current safety standards.

“The project is primarily focused on expanding the spillway length to get more capacity,” said Stewart. “The deficiency with our dam is that concrete spillway. It is not designed to the probable maximum flood standard.”

The challenge is the price.

“You’re looking at a $25 million project over a small rate base of 60,000 people, 30 percent of whom are living below the poverty line. It's a tough project to finance,” Stewart explained.

There are 145 high-hazard, high-risk dams across the state. They are found in 42 of the state's 67 counties. Ten of those dams are in South Central Pennsylvania.


High-hazard, high-risk dams in South Central, PA:

Lake Heritage - Adams County, Mount Joy Township

Carbaugh Run - Adams County, Franklin Township

Lake May (Section F) - Adams County, Liberty Township

DeHart Dam - Dauphin County, Rush Township

Gunter Valley - Franklin County, Lurgan Township

Middle Creek - Lancaster County, Clay Township

Memorial Lake - Lebanon County, East Hanover Township

Lake Heron - Perry County, Liverpool Township

Lake Redman - York County, York Township

Glatco Lake - York County, Heidelberg Township


RACHEL YONKUNAS: Should people be worried?

RICH REISINGER:  I wouldn’t say people should be worried, but they should be vigilant and be involved with what’s happening in their communities.

Rich Reisinger is the Chief of Dam Safety for the State DEP. His division inspects the state’s 744 high-hazard dams once a year. However, he has less than 30 people to do the work.

“Just because a dam has been there for 50, 75, 100 years doesn’t mean that it’s going to stay there for the next 20,” said Reisinger.

The State DEP is overseeing dozens of projects to upgrade high-hazard dams.

“York Water Company is working on Lake Williams, currently, to upgrade their spillway. The State Fish and Boat Commission is doing a lot of upgrades to their dams. DCNR is also working on that,” explained Reisinger.

Funding for these projects continues to be a headache. The DeHart Dam was denied a federal grant despite its high-hazard, high-risk status. Taxpayers may be stuck the $25 million bill.

“Right now, we’re planning to either go out for a low-interest loan or just pay for these improvements with water-user rates,” said Stewart.

Capital Region Water told FOX43 Reveals the design process will be kicked off in earnest this spring with a workshop with DEP. They hope to put out construction bids in late 2021, which means the project won’t be finished until at least 2023.

The timetable is unsettling for people like Mann, but she loves where she lives.

“To be able to sit there and watch the herons go up, we have bald eagles here,” expressed Mann. “I mean, it’s just, there’s nothing like it, to have a stream right outside my back door.”

She quietly tucks away that nagging fear in the back of her mind, for now.

“You can’t live your life based off that one chance thing that may or may not happen,” declared Mann. “But, the older that dam gets, the more likely it will happen.”

Governor Tom Wolf's $4.5 billion dollar Restore PA initiative would allocate more money to upgrade the state’s dams. Restore PA would be funded by a severance tax on natural gas drillers, which has divided state lawmakers.

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