It’s Raining…Dam It!
By Donnie Lunsford, USDA-NRCS Public Affairs Specialist
Texas Flood isn’t just a Stevie Ray Vaughan song. With the devastation that hit the Texas coast with Hurricane Harvey, we are reminded of the destruction that flooding can cause. In the late 1950’s, Texas and the United States experienced large flood events that broke the drought but destroyed entire towns and took many lives. A solution was to build strategically placed dams that would protect our watersheds from storm water surges throughout the watersheds of the U.S.
Over the last 60 years, local project sponsors with the assistance of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), built over 2,000 flood water retention structures, commonly called flood water prevention sites (FWP), throughout Texas to protect lives, homes, businesses, roads and infrastructure from surging flood waters that can decimate areas during storms.
The Middle Clear Fork Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), Callahan Divide SWCD, and the NRCS recently hosted a Farm and Ranch Breakfast at a flood water retention structure site near Abilene with topics discussed including fencing options with a demonstration, operation and maintenance of the dam, sponsor and owner responsibilities of the dam, and financial assistance through the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board (TSSWCB).
“Understanding the genesis of when this all started back in 1964 and how it has developed into a program where the state is very involved in operation and maintenance of these retention dams is extremely important to the entire state and I can take this knowledge to Austin and the legislature,” explained State Congressman Stan Lambert of 71st District of the Texas House of Representatives. “Flooding is always going to be a major issue because when it rains, it rains a lot in a short amount of time and it was seen along the coast with our recent disasters.”
Taylor County Precinct 4 Commissioner, Chuck Statler, explained the County’s role as watershed sponsor along with the landowner and how they work together to keep these dams functioning with annual inspections, brush management, and other maintenance issues such as fencing off livestock. While many of these structures were originally in rural areas, urban sprawl has reclassified many of these dams into high hazard dams due to homes, roads, and other structures built in potential flood areas in the event of a catastrophic breach.
Fencing was a big topic on everyone’s mind because it can be expensive with many different types of materials available. Fencing is needed to aid in grazing management to improve land stewardship. A local fence builder discussed how high tensile wire fence meets NRCS specifications by using a fence that was under construction to show all of the components that go into a fence. This demonstrated how high tensile wire can be cost effective by using less t-posts and materials while tough enough to assist in reducing hog damage which has been a plague on farmers and ranchers in Texas.
Todd Marek, NRCS engineer, discussed the history, design, construction, and components of the dam with impacts that could take place downstream if these sites were not there to control flood events that occur periodically.
Marek stated, “This dam was built in 1967 and protects the city of Brownwood. If this dam wasn’t designed with a proper primary and auxiliary spillway, many lives, property, homes, roads could be damaged or lost. We have technology that notifies local and state NRCS personnel and dam sponsors when the primary spillway is activated from a rain event which can often help with our plan of action if a significant rainfall event occurs.”
While standing on the dam, event participants were able to see all parts of the structure, including both the primary and auxiliary spillways with the entire catchment basin. Water was still present from the last rain event. These sites are not designed to hold water year round and will often dry up when rain events are less frequent.
Lee Munz, TSSWCB flood control programs director, discussed the funding available for sponsors through the TSSWCB. While many of these dams are needing operation and maintenance, the sponsors can obtain matching funds through their local SWCD and the TSSWCB.
“Local watershed sponsors had the vision to understand how important these structures would be in reducing the impacts of flooding decades ago, and the dams became an integral part of the landscape in helping to protect downstream roads, bridges, and property,” said John Mueller, NRCS state conservation engineer for Texas.
It’s Raining, Dam it…, Donnie Lunsford, USDA-NRCS Public Affairs Specialist (2017, October)