Following a lengthy and sometimes contentious public hearing Monday night, Oktibbeha County Engineer Clyde Pritchard will prepare plans to work on the Oktibbeha County Lake dam.
Following a motion made by District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard, whose district includes the lake and dam, the board unanimously approved putting $140,000 left over from Howard’s current State Aid road funds plus $105,000 of his upcoming State Aid funds toward Pritchard creating plans to repair the dam and open the riser in the lake.
Pritchard said the cost of the plans would be approximately $250,000 with the detour road, or approximately $170,000 without.
The hearing was held by the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors, and concerned citizens filled the upstairs courtroom at the Oktibbeha County Courthouse.
“What we need is information, and the only way we’re going to get that information is authorize our engineer to get that information,” Howard said. “It’s critical. We have to start.”
However, prior to the motion being made, County Administrator Emily Garrard and Board Attorney Rob Roberson reminded Howard that some of the State Aid dollars he mentioned might already be tied up in the Longview Adaton Bridge. However, a vote was still made.
At the beginning of the hearing, Pritchard gave a rundown of the current situation at the dam, saying the level had initially dropped down almost low enough for the riser to be removed, but heavy rains in early February brought the levels right back up, almost to the levels they were at when the initial landslide took place on the back of the dam and a voluntary evacuation was issued in mid January.
“On Jan. 14, we had another slide, and the slide was on the back side of the dam in or about the same location where we had the slide that we repaired in 2017 on the front side,” Pritchard said. “We had the slide, what folks in the industry call sand boils, we saw material coming up from the bottom of the dam and heavy rain, so that’s when we ordered the voluntary evacuation.”
He emphasized that the plan to destroy the riser would let water exit the lake more quickly, but would not prevent the lake from filling up to a high level during heavy rain.
“We’ve been discharging some 18 million to 25 million gallons a day, that said, it sounds like a huge number, it is a big number, it’s a lot of water to pump, but earlier in the month, we had the lake down about eight-and-a-half, nine feet,” Pritchard said. “It was very close to the point that we could do some work on the primary spillway riser. We had the big rains come in, and we lost that in a day and a half.”
Pritchard said his current trigger for an emergency evacuation, would be the lake rising to a level where water was passing through the emergency spillway.
“We’ve got about five-point-three feet of cushion,” Pritchard said.
A meeting with representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding the dam is scheduled for March 2.
“I have sent them all the documents that we have, our history with this lake goes back to about 2014, everything that we’ve got, including the repair efforts, the inspection records, pictures, et cetera,” Pritchard said. “They’re going to come in. They’re assessing that information right now, they want to take a site visit to tell us what they have available.”
In a packet handed out at the hearing Howard laid out some possible plans to fund an eventual replacement of the dam.
The first path to the $4 million portion discussed in the past would be to use bonds to fund the entire option, which Howard said would require a slight tax increase.
The second option Howard laid out would be to use the remaining $2 million of state aid funds plus a $2 million bond issue serviced by using funds from the county budget currently going to other entities including the George M. Bryan Airport, the Mississippi Horse Park and others. He also proposed asking the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District Board of Trustees if the county could use all or a portion of the $32,000 lease funding it receives on the lake, which is on the district’s 16th Section land. While the lake itself is on school district land, the dam is under county control.
“We’ve got a room full of taxpayers here,” Howard said. “Everybody in here is entitled to their opinion. You’re all entitled to that, but what this board is not entitled to, this board does not have a right to continue to ignore the information that we’re been given about that dam by professionals, by the people who do this every day.”
“We can’t continue for another four years, to kick the can down the road,” Howard added.
District 4 Supervisor Bricklee Miller emphasized the need to know as much as possible before a final decision on the situation was made. She also spoke against using the next round of State Aid funds to work on the dam, or using a USDA loan as has been previously discussed.
“Are your citizens OK with that,” Miller said. “If we did a USDA loan, a high-interest loan, and we weren’t raising taxes, but we were taking the payments out of our road and bridge fund money would that be OK? A vote was passed 3-2, and this was for taxpayers to cover half of the levee if state or federal dollars were allocated. Do you think that the county should go ahead and pay $250,000 for engineering plans prior to knowing if we’ll get matching grant funding?”
In response, Howard emphasized the urgency of the situation.
“It’s not being genuine to say that we can’t make decisions because we don’t have the information, when the reason we don’t have the information is because we won’t instruct our engineer to move forward.”
Among the people to speak in the public hearing was George Sills, a retired Corps of Engineers dam engineer. After clarifying that he wasn’t looking for any work but speaking as a citizen, Sills asked why the county hadn’t taken care of the issue in the past.
“They’ve known going out for years that the dam was unsafe, but they didn’t go when the lake was dry? I was there in July,” Sills said. “Why didn’t they cut the riser off then? Why wait until the alligators are dipping in the boat and everybody’s rear end, and then come up and say ‘oh, we’ve got to get the lake down so we can cut it. They knew that. The slide that went into the lake after they drew the water down shouldn’t have surprised anybody. It happens a lot to dams when they’ve been full for years and years and years.”
He urged the county to complete a study on the dam to determine what was actually wrong with it before tearing the entire structure down.
“Just because that dam doesn’t meet a certain geometry, that doesn’t mean just because it doesn’t meet current standards, it’s getting ready to breach and fail,” Sills said.
The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality as of Jan. 7 deemed the condition of the dam unsatisfactory, with issues discovered in 2016 after the initial failure on the lake side of the dam not being addressed. These include condition of both the primary and auxiliary spillways, seepage along the toe of the dam, inadequate spillway capacity and issues with the upstream and downstream slopes.
The dam is under a five-foot lake level restriction from MDEQ until the issues are resolved.
Laura Hogan, a resident of the area that would be affected by a dam failure expressed her concerns, asking the supervisors what it would take to make them take the problems with the dam seriously.
“If you’ve been knowing this four years back, what information do you need out from four years?” Hogan said. “If the rest of you at this table are not willing to give up your money to save lives, (District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams) is talking about a road, two three, four accidents. You’ve got 200 people, 200 homes, and you’re not willing to give up your money for that?
Jean Mohammadi-Aragh simply implored the board to fix the dam.
“This project impacts me, and I care about this project, and the people who live around there care bout the project,” Mohammidi-Aragh said. “Fix the dam.”