Aging Indiana dams prompt concerns of ‘catastrophic collapse’

Experts: Lack of emergency planning could also put communities at risk

(WISH Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — New data shows concerns are growing about the stability of hundreds of Indiana dams already labeled as high risk. At least 85 percent of the aging structures have known deficiencies, some of which may require emergency fixes, an analysis by I-Team 8 found.

The data was compiled on more than 1,100 Hoosier dams that hold back millions of gallons of water on Indiana lakes, rivers and streams. The dams range in height from about 10 feet to more than 10 stories tall. Their average age is now approaching 50 years old. More than 70 percent of them are privately owned.

And, many have little to no emergency planning surrounding them.


When the rain began in early June 2008, it hit Central Indiana hard, at times dumping more than an inch of water an hour.

Water surrounds homes in flood waters in 2008. (WISH Photo, file/Chopper 8)
Water surrounds homes in flood waters in 2008.(WISH Photo, file/Chopper 8)

The torrent didn’t stop for nearly two days.

Widespread flooding developed across the area, particularly concentrated on areas south of Indianapolis. Some homeowners in southern Johnson County like Joe Remey remembered the 40 foot high dam in the tiny town of Prince’s Lakes being built more than 30 years before.

“I remember it going in,” Remey said, standing on his front porch with the top of the dam visible in the distance. “I didn’t really give much thought to it on my part. Because, it wasn’t going to bother me really. I was across the road.”

Remey, like many of his neighbors, knew the dam was getting old and needed repair work. But, the landowners association decided to delay the expensive fixes.

Camille Cline, who lives just doors down from the spillway, agreed at the time that the delays wouldn’t be a problem.

“From then on, it was pure panic, because the dam had given way.”

“It just never crossed my mind (that it would ever fail),” Cline told I-Team 8. “And, even if it did, I didn’t think of it in terms of doing anything but damaging the park area (below) where they play baseball and such. Anything else just seemed impossible.”

Cline says she still remembers the moment she knew the dam wouldn’t hold.

“I woke up when someone beat on my door, my nephew, and he said: you’ve got five inches on your porch, Aunt Camille! And, from then on, it was pure panic, because the dam had given way,” she said.

The community’s dam on East Lake had over-topped, and water was now gushing 40 feet down the hillside below. Cline says most homeowners weren’t prepared for the damage to come.

“I had new carpet coming in, and it was the day the new carpet was to be laid. So, I had everything packed and moved into one room. It was all under water. And, we were trapped in our homes for two days. We were surrounded by water on both sides. No one was hurt, which is a blessing. But, we lost a lot,” Cline said.

An I-Team 8 investigation found the likelihood of future dam failures similar to or worse than the one in Prince’s Lakes may be growing in Indiana.


Federal records compiled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and obtained by I-Team 8 show the biggest part of those concerns centers on the increasing age of Hoosier dams. Nearly 60 percent of them were constructed during a nationwide building blitz in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Most were designed for a 50-year lifespan — a mark they’re either nearing or have already passed, according to data analysis by I-Team 8.

Dams in Indiana

Data Courtesy of the National Inventory of Dams supplemented with data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
(WISH Photo)
(WISH Photo)

Dams are split into three categories: high hazard, significant hazard and low hazard.

“If a high hazard dam fails, it’s going to be catastrophic in terms of the effect of that failure,” said Brian McKenna, a professional engineer and dam inspector with Indianapolis-based Christopher B. Burke Engineering, LLC.

It’s one reason why Indiana’s dams were given an overall grade of D- in a recent survey by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). That’s tied with Kansas, Texas, Missouri and Georgia for the lowest rating in the nation.

McKenna, who was part of the team compiling the data used to create that report card says the grade should be cause for serious concern.

“The primary basis for (the grade) was the percentage of dams that have a satisfactory rating,” he said. “(In Indiana), it’s less than 10 percent that meet satisfactory rating.”

Here’s another way to look at that statement: more than 90 percent of Indiana’s dams have some type of known deficiency.

That’s 5 percent worse that just one year ago, according to data from the National Inventory of Dams (NID), which listed 41 of the state’s 272 high hazard dams as satisfactory in 2013. The remaining 85 percent of Indiana’s dams were listed in fair, poor or unsatisfactory condition. Five high hazard dams were not rated in the 2013 inventory.

“If there is something that goes wrong in one of those, the potential for large, catastrophic consequences is pretty significant.”

That doesn’t mean all 90 percent of Indiana’s unsatisfactory dams are at risk of imminent failure, McKenna said. But, it does mean the state is well aware that most of its dams are in need of repairs. And, the longer they go without repairs — or replacement — the bigger the risk.

For those in the high hazard category, that risk includes loss of property and loss of life.

“There certainly are some out there that, if we got a large enough rainfall event, we could potentially see some failures,” McKenna said. “There are some (high hazard dams) included. And, the biggest trigger for those would be a major flooding event. If the dam doesn’t have enough spillway capacity then it runs the risk of over-topping during a flooding event. That’s where we see most of the failures occur with dams.”

It’s one reason why McKenna, and other dam safety experts, are speaking up.

“I think there is reason to be concerned about whether there is enough funding and attention going to the dams. Even with a dam that was designed and built perfectly in accordance with current requirements, it’s still going to deteriorate over time and have things that need to be maintained. And, if there is something that goes wrong in one of those, the potential for large, catastrophic consequences is pretty significant,” he said.


Seven years after the dam collapsed at Prince’s Lakes, a brand new state-of-the-art concrete dam — with a large, newly constructed spillway — now stands in its place.

But, one thing hasn’t changed there: the lack of a dam emergency action plan, known as an EAP.

I-Team 8 found similar shortfalls in EAPs at other dams across the state, both privately and publicly owned. That’s because Indiana is one of 10 states that does not require dam owners to develop an EAP.

So, most don’t.

Records obtained by I-Team 8 from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers show just 22 percent of Hoosier dam owners had a current EAP on record in 2013, the last year of available federal records.

That’s the fourth lowest rate in the nation, behind only Alabama, Georgia and Rhode Island.



Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources refers to the plans as incident emergency action plans (IEAP). Newly updated state records show 70 incident emergency action plans (IEAP) on file at the end of 2014 among the state’s 241 high hazard dams, a rate of 29 percent. Those are the dams that, by definition, have the ability to cause loss of property or loss of life if they were to fail.

Dam safety expert Ron Butler is working to improve those numbers.

“The problem with not having an emergency action plan is: if something causes the dam to fail, the emergency response people don’t have at their fingertips a plan that tells them who to notify and where to get emergency equipment to deal with the problem,” Butler told I-Team 8, speaking from his offices in Missouri.

EAPs are designed to include everyone from first responders and Homeland Security personnel to local farmers and homeowners associations.

Butler, who heads the organization Dam Safety Action, has been a government contractor since 2003, working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and National Dam Safety Review Board on state programs to boost EAP compliance rates. His organization focuses on states without EAP laws in place.

“It can happen with such force and so quickly that it can kill a lot of people.”

Indiana is at the top of his target list.

“These handful of states where there is not that statutory authority, that’s where you see hundreds of high hazard dams without emergency planning. If you get a torrential rain on a dam that’s already weak or has a problem, it can overtop and go. And, it can happen with such force and so quickly that it can kill a lot of people. So, it’s important to know what to do if that were to happen,” Butler said.

Butler says lack of EAPs in Indiana likely also contributed to the state’s poor preparedness grade on the ASCE report card.

“When you get a grade that low, I think it’s an alarm bell,” Butler said. “There needs to be a look at what can be done. What kind of programs the state can put together to help dam owners improve their dams and repair them? Doing nothing is a dangerous option.”


Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources agrees that the low rate of IEAPs among private dam owners is a concern. But, the agency’s dam chief, Kenneth Smith, says without mandatory requirements for the creation of EAPs, the DNR’s hands are tied.

“To me, the creation of them is very critical,” said Smith, whose official title is assistant director of the DNR’s Division of Water. “But, it’s more than just having the document on the shelf. You need to create it, then practice it, then update it every few years. A lot of names, phone numbers and faces change in just a few years.”

Indiana DNR Kenneth Smith
Indiana DNR Dam Chief Kenneth Smith. (WISH Photo)

Smith said the DNR, and others, have lobbied for mandatory IEAPs in the past. But, reception among some at the Statehouse has been lukewarm, at best.

Still, while the DNR admits it’s concerned about the low compliance rate for IEAPs in Indiana, Smith said recent progress has been made to improve it.

“I wish the numbers were higher,” he said. “But, I’m thrilled that they’re at the level they’re at right now, considering the level where we started.”

Indiana has also re-focused its efforts on preventing dam disasters in the first place, Smith said.

“Dams are man-made structures. And, they deteriorate just like any other man-made structure. Most dam failures are actually preventable disasters if people begin to take responses early enough along the way,” he said.


In its most recent report on Indiana’s dams, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) lists Indiana’s alignment with national benchmarks for dam inspections at 85 percent in 1989.

By 2014, the reports lists Indiana’s compliance rate at 38 percent.

Smith attributed the drop to “improvement in the questions in ASDSO’s survey over the years,” and said it should not serve as a concern that the state’s inspection program is declining.

On the contrary, he says high hazard dams are getting closer looks now than they were before. That’s because, in 2002, the DNR pushed for a legislative change allowing private owners of dams classified as “high hazard” to hire their own, outside inspectors — work that used to be done by the state.

“Most dam failures are actually preventable disasters.”

“The owners of those dams now hire a private engineering firm to make an inspection and submit a report every two years. I used to have two inspectors to inspect all 1,100 dams in Indiana. That was … an impossible task,” Smith said.

Records show completed inspection forms were filed on 97 of the 241 state-regulated, high-hazard dams in 2014. The ASDSO report shows 64 percent of the high hazard dams were also inspected in 2013.

Smith said the figures could indicate a lag time between inspections.

“Many owners don’t seem to be contracting for the inspections until they are due. So, the exact two-year cycle is often missed,” Smith told I-Team 8.

But, nearly 900 other dams, including hundreds of dams labeled as “significant hazards” are still overseen by the state. They’re supposed to get a thorough inspection at least every three years. But, Smith admits they’re lagging behind.

“I still have two inspectors to inspect (all the remaining dams),” he said. “And, we’re probably 100 behind right now. 50 to 100 behind.”

That’s less of a concern than the high hazard dams, said Butler, of Dam Safety Action. But, as the name implies, those dams still contain significant risks.

“What you worry about with significant hazard dams is that there may be more development coming along down below and they may need to be upgraded to high hazard potential. Without the inspections, you don’t really catch some of that development. There are a lot of things that can go wrong with dams. There can be animals burrowing. There can be vegetation. They really need to be looked at by the owner on a regular basis, at least once a year,” Butler said.


But, even regular inspections aren’t foolproof.

“I do believe there are some smaller areas where it doesn’t happen. But, this dam (at Prince’s Lakes) was inspected many times. Inspections won’t save a dam if it needs to be fixed and it isn’t,” said Camille Cline, who watched the Prince’s Lakes dam fail in 2008.

It’s one reason why Cline now preaches preparedness.

“Anything can happen at any time. So, you need to stay prepared. Hope for the best, but stay prepared. It’s time for Indiana to stop rolling the dice,” she said.

Smith, of the DNR, says education is a key component to doing that.

“The most important thing is to know where the dams are around you.”

Because the state doesn’t mandate IEAPs, the DNR has recently begun conducting countywide Emergency Management Agency drills involving dams. The agency also recently spoke to more than 12,000 Indiana real estate agents, empowering them to educate their clients about dams and the responsibilities surrounding them.

“The most important thing is to know where the dams are around you. There may not be a dam at the back fence of your property, but there might be one a couple miles upstream somewhere that’s large enough that, should it go, it could create a problem downstream,” he said.

Inundation areas from dam breaches will often far exceed traditional stream flooding, stretching beyond flood plains that often dictate whether homeowners are required to purchase flood insurance.

Indiana’s DNR will hold a one-day information conference for dam owners and local emergency responders. The Dam Information Resources and Training (DIRT) event will be held in Brown County on June 16.

For a list of dam safety tips to go over with your family, click here. provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others and keep the conversation on topic and civil. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

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