On the steep, grassy slope of Powers Lake dam in Sandy Springs, Bobby Sauer Jr. bent down and patted the ground. He was feeling for any damp spots, the warning signs of major leaks that could spell disaster for people downstream. He held up a dry palm.
Sauer is an inspector for the state’s Safe Dams Program, the agency that categorizes Powers Lake and 10 other local dams as “high-hazard,” meaning that if they failed, the flood likely would kill people. No high-hazard dam in Georgia has failed since the 1990s, and Safe Dams aims to keep it that way, though resources are slim.
There are 474 high-hazard dams in Georgia—many of them privately owned—and Sauer is one of only 11 staff engineers the Safe Dams Program has to inspect them all. The Feb. 11 visit from Sauer and fellow inspector Skylar Barger was the first time Powers Lake has been inspected in three years.
“It looks pretty good,” Sauer said—the only preview of his final report he would offer. Sauer and Barger are inspecting all the “high-hazard” local dams in their current review cycle and the full reports will take one to two months. The same day, they also looked at two dams in the midst of long repair processes: Tera Lake dam in Sandy Springs and the Lake Forrest dam on the Buckhead-Sandy Springs border.
At Powers Lake, located off Powers Lake Drive, the inspectors had a big asset: Donald Dutson Jr., who has overseen the dam’s maintenance on behalf of the local homeowners association for 30 years. “Less than half the dams have someone like that,” Sauer said. At many dams—including Tera Lake and Lake Forrest—the state struggles to identify an owner of record to put on the hook for maintenance.
Dutson knows the importance of dam maintenance first-hand. He said he was camping upstream from a Toccoa, Ga., dam when it failed in 1978 and killed 39 people. That disaster led to the creation of the Safe Dams Program. The biggest issue at Powers Lake was 25 years ago, when an inspector did find some of those wet spots, which led to $30,000 in repairs.
Nothing like that turned up this time. Clad in a Georgia Tech ball cap, an Atlanta Falcons “Dirty Bird” sweatshirt and camouflage pants, Sauer clambered into streambeds to snap photos and take notes on a clipboard. His and Barger’s only concerns were a couple of possible animal burrows to fill in, some brush to cut back, and a drainpipe opening that needed some digging out.
Tera Lake and Lake Forrest are different stories. In 2013, Safe Dams ordered the partial drainage of Tera Lake, off Burdette Road, after finding an “instability” in the dam. A long-term fix has yet to happen. Sauer said the Feb. 11 inspection found that Tera Lake remained low after recent heavy rains.
The Lake Forrest dam, which runs under the 4600 block of Lake Forrest Drive, has become a notorious dilemma. The lake is owned by a homeowners association, while the cities of Atlanta and Sandy Springs have agreed to share responsibility—and costs—for dam repairs. Officials from both cities showed up to join the Feb. 11 inspection.
Safe Dams says the many mature trees on the dam must be removed, and wants the dam examined for possible internal weakening. But nearly a year after work began, the lake is only partially drained and an inspection by a private engineering firm is still pending. A few trees have been partially removed, mostly to insert a boat to remove fish during the lake-lowering.
Sauer didn’t know the latest details of the work and had lots of questions about what he saw. “Is that log supposed to be here? Is it serving a purpose?” he asked about a hunk of wood floating near the mouth of the dam’s drainpipe. The log was debris that had floated in, said Philip Walker, Sandy Springs’ stormwater project coordinator. Pieces of the pipe, which had been severed to lower the lake’s level, remained in the water as well.
“At least it’s better than it was before,” Sauer said of Lake Forrest, but added that the state is still awaiting the cities’ repair strategy. “We don’t have true plans given to our office about what will happen.”
Editor’s note: This is one of a series of articles Reporter Newspapers is publishing about dams in our communities. Previous installments have looked at the location and condition of the 11 local “high-hazard” dams; the cost of maintaining these dams and the long process of repairing them; and concerns about the lack of emergency plans in case of a dam failure.