Is There a Dam in Your Community, and If So, Is It Subject to the Georgia Safe Dams Act?

The Land of 10,000 Lakes?  Not Georgia.  But we do have a significant amount of rivers, streams and creeks, and when a dam is constructed within such a waterway, a nice lake can often result.  Lakes of various sizes have thus become increasingly common within the neighborhoods and condominiums of our state.  If your community association owns a dam as part of the common property or common elements, or if there is a covenant within your community that requires your association to maintain a dam, then you need to know whether or not Georgia’s Safe Dams Act applies.  

Georgia’s Safe Dams Act was enacted in 1978 in order to reduce the risk of dam failures by providing that “certain dams” must have a permit issued by the state and be regularly inspected by the state.  Such permitting and inspections are under the authority of the Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”). Dams that are subject to the Safe Dams Act are generally defined as artificial barriers (i.e., dams) that are either (i) twenty-five feet or more in height, which is generally measured from the natural bed of the waterway; or (ii) have a capacity to impound and store a volume of 100 acre-feet of water.

Dams that are subject to the Safe Dams Act fall into one of two categories.  They are either Category I or Category II.  A Category I dam means that if the dam fails, there is a probable loss of human life, while a Category II dam means that if the dam fails, there is not a probable loss of human life.

Category I dams are those “certain dams” within the Safe Dams Act that require a permit from the state.  Since the Safe Dams Act provides that a Category I dam will result in a probable loss of human life in the event it fails, Category I dams are required to comply with statutory safety standards and are inspected annually by the Georgia DNR.  There are currently 385 Category I dams in the state, and according to Tom Woosley P.E. with the Georgia DNR, more than sixty percent of the Category I dams are located in the metro Atlanta area.  This does make sense statistically because of the population density.  Since there are more people in the metro area than any other area in the state, it is more probable there would be a loss of human live if a dam subject to the Safe Dams Act did fail in or near Atlanta.

Category II dams do not require a permit from the state and do not require any of the safety standards that are imposed on Category I dams.  The approximate 4,000 Category II dams currently identified within Georgia are inventoried by the DNR once every five years.  The purpose of inventorying Category II dams is not to inspect whether the dams are meeting safety standards.  Instead, the primary purpose is to see if there has been a change in circumstances that would cause a Category II dam to be reclassified as a Category I dam.  That is, if circumstances have changed so that a failure of a Category II dam would result in the probable loss of human life, the Category II dam would be reclassified to Category I.  The change in circumstance might be a house that has been built downstream of the dam.

One community association, for example, recently received a notice from the Georgia DNR that the association’s Category II dam was being reclassified to Category I after the DNR discovered that a house had been built .06 miles downstream of the dam.  The DNR had conducted a "dam failure flood analysis" that showed that if the community association’s dam failed, a flood wave of 5.34 feet would inundate the house and cause a probable loss of human life.  The DNR was thus required to reclassify the dam from Category II to Category I.  The community association, as owner of the dam, then had six months under the Safe Dams Act to apply for a Category I permit for the dam by showing that the dam meets Category I safety standards.

The Georgia DNR has had more than one experience in which a community association did not know its dam was subject to the Safe Dams Act.  If your community does have a dam, the dam either will or will not be subject to the Safe Dams Act depending upon its size and its capacity to impound and store water.  If you are not sure, the Board should contact its community association counsel to assist in determining whether or not the Safe Dams Act applies.

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