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Associated Press investigation finds WA has 50 dams in 'poor' condition that need repairs

A map of Washington state indicating the locations of dams "poor" condition that need repairs.
KNKX Public Radio
Created with Datawrapper
An Associated Press investigation has found 50 dams in Washington state that are classified as high-hazard and in poor condition. KNKX mapped the location of these dams, found in 23 out of Washington's 39 counties.

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — A small earthen dam in Stevens County that was rated the worst in the state in 2016 had a slightly improved condition when it was re-inspected in 2021, according to an analysis released this week by The Associated Press.

The Van Stone Pit Lake Dam was the only high-hazard dam in the state listed in unsatisfactory condition and in need of immediate repairs, the worst category, when it was inspected in 2016, the analysis found. But it is now one of 50 high-hazard dams in the state listed in poor condition, the analysis found.

The state regulates about 1,100 dams, most privately owned.

The Van Stone Pit Lake Dam is on land that used to belong to a timber company. The land was foreclosed on sometime after 2016 by Stevens County officials for failure to pay taxes.

That 2016 inspection found overgrown vegetation on the earthen dam, holes in the downstream face; seepage on an embankment slope; inadequate spillway to handle heavy rains; and three homes in the probable flood inundation area. Not much has changed, except the dam's rating was raised one notch after the 2021 inspection.

“Overall, the inspectors revealed that the dam is in poor condition,” the state Department of Ecology said last week. “Ecology recommends that the dam be removed."

The agency does not think the dam is in imminent danger of failing.

Dating from the 1920s, the earthen dam is of unknown construction “because it was not built under Ecology’s permitting process,” the agency said.

“It is important to note that we do not own this dam, but will be providing assistance because it is in the best interest of the community,” Ecology said.

The dam, about 23 miles north of Colville, serves no purpose and was created when construction of a road berm impounded the water, documents said. It is 25 feet tall, about 100 feet long and about 15 feet wide.

Dams are categorized by the hazard they pose were they to fail. A high-hazard dam is likely to result in the loss of at least one human life if it were to fail.

Dams also are assessed by their conditions — ranging from satisfactory to fair to poor to unsatisfactory.

A dam in unsatisfactory condition has safety deficiencies requiring immediate action, but there are none of these in Washington. A dam in poor condition typically has safety deficiencies that may realistically occur, meaning repairs are necessary.

An Associated Press analysis tallied more than 2,200 high-hazard dams in poor or unsatisfactory condition across the U.S. — up substantially from a similar AP review conducted just three years ago. The actual number likely is higher, although it’s unclear because a couple states don’t track such data and many federal agencies refuse to release details about their dams’ conditions or the dangers they pose.

Many of the state's giant hydro-power dams are owned by federal agencies or utilities.

There are a variety of reasons for the rising number of troubled dams. A heightened emphasis by some state regulators has turned up new concerns. Deferred maintenance has resulted in worsened conditions. Dams that were built decades ago now often pose more of a hazard than originally envisioned because homes, businesses and highways have cropped up below them.

A changing climate also plays a role. A warming atmosphere can bring stronger storms with heavier rainfall that can overwhelm older dams lacking adequately sized spillway outlets.

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill signed last year by President Joe Biden will provide about $3 billion for dam-related projects, but that’s just a fraction of what’s needed for safety upgrades and repairs to the thousands of dams across the country.

Of Washington's 50 high-hazard dams listed in poor condition, the most are in Yakima County with seven.

Below are the state's 50 poor condition dams, shown on an interactive map and listed alphabetically by county:

  • Camano Island Cattle Co., Adams
  • Gap Road Reservoir, Benton
  • Paterson Ranch Reservoir, Benton
  • Blair Reservoir, Benton
  • Meadow Lake, Chelan
  • Colchuk Lake, Chelan
  • Square Lake, Chelan
  • Eightmile Lake Outlet, Chelan
  • Klonqua Lake, Chelan
  • Elwick, Clallam
  • Tri Mountain Estates, Clark
  • Haight Reservoir, Clark
  • Zirkle Partridge Ranch, Grant
  • Beacon Hill, Grays Harbor
  • Fairview Reservoir, Grays Harbor
  • Lords Lake East, Jefferson
  • Swano Lake, Grays Harbor
  • Sylvia Lake, Grays Harbor
  • College Hill, Grays Harbor
  • Newcastle Railroad Embankment, King
  • Lake Kittyprince, King
  • Koura, Kitsap
  • Upper Sunlight Lake, Kittitas
  • Johnson Creek Reservoir, Klickitat
  • Trask Lake, Mason
  • Belfair Wastewater Treated Water Pond, Mason
  • Fanchers, Okanogan
  • Schweitzer, Okanogan
  • Indian Creek, Pacific
  • Slavic Lake, Pierce
  • Buck Mountain Reservoir No. 1, San Juan
  • Whistle Lake, Skagit
  • Kayak Lake, Snohomish
  • Rainbow Springs, Snohomish
  • Nielsen Dam B, Snohomish
  • Nielsen Dam C, Snohomish
  • Spokane Hutterian Brethren, Spokane
  • Fairfield Sewage Lagoon No. 1, Spokane
  • Newman Lake Flood Control, Spokane
  • Deer Park Sewage Treatment, Spokane
  • Ponderosa Lake, Stevens
  • Van Stone Pit Lake, Stevens
  • Kyte, Thurston
  • Den Hoed Dam No. 1, Yakima
  • Evans Konnowac, Yakima
  • Coleman, Yakima
  • Black Rock Orchards, Yakima
  • Parker Reservoir, Yakima
  • Evans Pond, Yakima
  • Roy Farm Irrigation Pond, Yakima
The Associated Press (“AP”) is the essential global news network, delivering fast, unbiased news from every corner of the world to all media platforms and formats. On any given day, more than half the world’s population sees news from the AP. Founded in 1846, the AP today is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering. The AP considers itself to be the backbone of the world’s information system, serving thousands of daily newspaper, radio, television, and online customers with coverage in text, photos, graphics, audio and video.