How Do Northeast Florida’s Dams Compare to Piney Point?

Apr 5, 2021

None of the dams in Northeast Florida have emergency action plans, even though 26 of the 28 dams require them and eight would be expected to cause some loss of life if they were to ever  rupture. That’s according to data from the state's Department of Environmental Protection.

WJCT News looked at the Northeast Florida dams after dozens of homes were evacuated and Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared a state of emergency in Manatee County after officials reported breach at Piney Point reservoir, a phosphate plant’s wastewater pond. 

It’s important to note that the Manatee County breach is not in the dam, but rather in the manmade pond’s plastic lining. However, a spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers said the Manatee County breach raises questions about the viability of Florida’s dams, since both are flood risks that could harm people and property.

Piney Point is classified as a tailings dam, meaning its purpose is to store industrial byproducts. None of the 28 dams in Nassau, St. Johns, Duval and Putnam Counties are tailings dams. Rather, their purposes are listed as recreation, fire protection, farming, and water supply. 

Eight of the First Coast area dams’ purpose is listed as ‘Other.’ The DEP could not be reached immediately to clarify under what circumstances a designation of ‘other’ would be given. 

In addition to classifying its dams by purpose, Florida rates its dams according to the hazard posed to the public if the dam were to fail. 

Dams can be high hazard, meaning loss of life and damage to property is expected; significant risk, meaning damage to property is expected; or low risk, meaning no loss of life or property damage is expected. Some dams are also classified as an undetermined risk. 

Piney Point is classified as a significant hazard. Of Northeast Florida’s 28 dams, eight are high-hazard and 11 are significant hazards. 

None of Northeast Florida’s dams have an emergency action plan, which can help dam owners keep dams safe and make sure first responders have the best chance of keeping people safe in a crisis. Two are not required to have EAPs; 26 are required to, but don’t. 

In Clay County, Wright’s Lake Dam, which the DEP says poses a significant hazard, has overflowed twice in recent years, once in 2013 as a result of excessive rainfall, and in 2017 during Hurricane Irma. No fatalities were reported in either incident. 

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the average age of dams in the U.S. is 57 years.  Data provided by the DEP reveals that the average age of Northeast Florida’s dams is 54 years. 

“The high average age means that the majority of dams will not have been built to current standards, let alone incorporate newer standards that improve their resilience and reduce the risk to downstream areas,” said a recent report from the Corps of Engineers. “Furthermore, at the time of their construction, they may have been considered low hazard potential, so they may not be able to withstand the increasingly frequent and severe weather events or other natural hazards like earthquakes.”

Nationwide, the Army Corps of Engineers has found that it would cost some $73 billion to fully repair all of the country’s dams. President Joe Biden is expected to devote some funding towards dam repair in his upcoming infrastructure plan, but the exact dollar amount - or how much would be earmarked for Florida -  is not yet known. 

Contact Sydney Boles at sboles@wjct.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.