State of Colorado plans study of 400 'high hazard' dams statewide

Study to rank dams with highest risk potential

DENVER -- Colorado environmental officials are planning to spend tens of thousands of dollars studying the state’s 400 “high hazard” dams to map where floodwaters might go in the event of heavy rain and snow melt.

The dams are classified by the state as high hazard not because they are in poor condition or likely to fail, but because a failure would likely cost people their lives.

State officials say the dams are all well-maintained and inspected, but flooding in 2013 and 2015 linked to historic heavy rains and snow melt pointed out a vulnerability in the state’s dam safety system.

“We found that the spillways flowed, the dams operated just fine, they performed as we expected them,” explained Bill McCormick, chief of the state’s dam safety branch. “But the flows that went through the spillways in some cases created dangerous conditions and did damage downstream anyway.”

McCormick said the state does not have maps that predict where such overflows might go in the future, but hopes to address that problem with the study.

"People downstream might not expect the flows. They think the dams are flood control dams, but really these dams are storage reservoirs -- they store the snow melt that we see, they're going to store this for use next year. And so the owners of those like to keep those full,” McCormick said.

By the end of the six-month study, the state hopes to rank and prioritize which dams and reservoirs could cause the most problems, and how to address those potential problems.

“The study is going to lay out a road map of where to go next?” asked Denver7 investigative reporter Ryan Luby.

“Exactly,” McCormick said.

State officials are still seeking a vendor to conduct the study, but expect the project will cost less than $100,000 from both state and federal funding sources.

Proposals to conduct the study are due by Dec. 16.

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