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Could this earthen dam have destroyed the community of Lilly and its environs decades ago?

Reservoir on Lilly Mountain, October 2000

… had to be destroyed after 9/11

During the 1980s, a resident of Lilly asked me a question that went something like this?

What would happen if the big reservoirs on Lilly Mountain had so much water that they collapsed?

My simple answer was that I did not know — but that it was a good question.

Since I was a member of Lilly Borough Council, I did investigate, and I was not really reassured that it could not happen. Two reservoirs which had potentially 2 million gallons of water were in those two reservoirs.

Less than 20 years later, that upper reservoir, owned by Highland Sewer and Water in Johnstown, had to be destroyed because it was an earthen dam. That occurred after 9/11, and I was told that was because of legislation or action by the federal government after the terrorist attack.

However, after doing research, I found that the federal government started a program to inspect dams in the late 1990s. This was passed in 2002, and perhaps that is the reason that both of those reservoirs were drained and the breasts destroyed. Looking at them on Google maps, it is a shame that such a beautiful area is now devoid of that water.

Nevertheless, the area below is probably safer without them.

However, the truth is that the reservoirs, which were both simply earthen dams, would probably never had broken unless a terrible storm like that which caused the 1889 and 1977 floods occurred.

Still, if something like that had happened, what would have happened to Lilly Coal and Lilly Borough that were down in the valley below the reservoirs. It is probably a drop of more than 500 feet from the upper reservoir to Lilly borough, which is about 2,000 feet above sea level.

Which brings us to the situation with the Wilmore Dam this week in Cambria County. That apparently is not an earthen dam, but it is more than a century old, and these dams across the country provide tremendous dangers.

AP Report: At least 1,680 pose risk

In a report almost two years ago, the Associated Press went through public records — as many as they could access — to determine how much a risk these antiquated dams are today.

A more than two-year investigation by The Associated Press has found scores of dams nationwide in even worse condition, and in equally dangerous locations. They loom over homes, businesses, highways or entire communities that could face life-threatening floods if the dams don’t hold.

A review of federal data and reports obtained under state open records laws identified 1,688 high-hazard dams rated in poor or unsatisfactory condition as of last year in 44 states and Puerto Rico. The actual number is almost certainly higher: Some states declined to provide condition ratings for their dams, claiming exemptions to public record requests. Others simply haven’t rated all their dams due to lack of funding, staffing or authority to do so.

Deaths from dam failures have declined since a series of catastrophic collapses in the 1970s prompted the federal and state governments to step up their safety efforts. Yet about 1,000 dams have failed over the past four decades, killing 34 people, according to Stanford University’s National Performance of Dams Program.

Built for flood control, irrigation, water supply, hydropower, recreation or industrial waste storage, the nation’s dams are over a half-century old on average.

Some are no longer adequate to handle the intense rainfall and floods of a changing climate. Yet they are being relied upon to protect more and more people as housing developments spring up nearby.

David A. Lieb, Michael Casey, and Michelle Minkoff, “At least 1,680 dams across the U.S. pose potential risk,” Associated Press, November 11, 2019

The major problem? Billions of dollars

The most significant problem in trying to get this problem under control is that a slew of them are dangerous, but will take millions to billions of dollars to repair, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials,

The association estimates it would take more than $70 billion to repair and modernize the nation’s more than 90,000 dams. But unlike much other infrastructure, most U.S. dams are privately owned. That makes it difficult for regulators to require improvements from operators who are unable or unwilling to pay the steep costs.

“Most people have no clue about the vulnerabilities when they live downstream from these private dams,” said Craig Fugate, a former administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “When they fail, they don’t fail with warning. They just fail, and suddenly you can find yourself in a situation where you have a wall of water and debris racing toward your house with very little time, if any, to get out.”

David A. Lieb, Michael Casey, and Michelle Minkoff, AP, November 11, 2019

Inspections are a joke

The situation of the Wilmore Dam in central Cambria County illustrates the problems with these dam inspections. It was rated at poor but a month later that was changed to good, according to published reports in The Daily American.

The AP story talked about a man who was killed three years ago because of a dam failure in Nebraska. His family has filed a five million dollar lawsuit against the owners, but it will not bring back the Vietnam War veteran,

On a cold morning last March, Kenny Angel got a frantic knock on his door. Two workers from a utility company in northern Nebraska had come with a stark warning: Get out of your house.

Just a little over a quarter-mile upstream, the 92-year-old Spencer Dam was straining to contain the swollen, ice-covered Niobrara River after an unusually intense snow and rainstorm. The workers had tried but failed to force open the dam’s frozen wooden spillway gates. So, fearing the worst, they fled in their truck, stopping to warn Angel before driving away without him.

Minutes later, the dam came crashing down, unleashing a wave of water carrying ice chunks the size of cars. Angel’s home was wiped away; his body was never found.

“He had about a 5-minute notice, with no prior warning the day before,” Scott Angel, one of Kenny’s brothers, said.

State inspectors had given the dam a “fair” rating less than a year earlier. Until it failed, it looked little different from thousands of others across the U.S. — and that could portend a problem.

David A. Lieb, Michael Casey, and Michelle Minkoff, AP, November 11, 2019

Could Lilly have been in danger?

Probably, but it would have taken a major storm. It could have happened, but today, there is no danger.

Both Highland and Lilly Borough had relied on a spring at the top of Lilly Mountain that fed the two former Highland Reservoirs, which were large, and the two Lilly ones, which are much smaller.

However, both now use artesian wells to supply their communities, so the reservoirs are not necessary for water.

The Wilmore Dam provides water for industrial clients, not individual drinking customers. Nevertheless, we do not know if any real danger existed when the water ran over that dam. The good news is that it held, but how safe are all of these dams in the U.S.?

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