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Kansas regulators struggling to deal with 29 high-hazard dams in need of repair

By: - January 31, 2022 12:57 pm
Earl Lewis, chief engineer with the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said the state had 29 dams in need of prompt repair but complained the agency lacked legal tools to compel landowners to act. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

Earl Lewis, chief engineer with the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said the state had 29 dams in need of prompt repair but complained the agency lacked legal tools to compel landowners to act. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Department of Agriculture briefed a legislative committee Monday on legal challenges of compelling action to repair 29 dams in unsatisfactory condition and considered a hazard to homes, businesses or infrastructure.

Earl Lewis, chief engineer with the agriculture department, said the state has regulatory control of about one-third of the state’s 6,695 dams. Overall, more than 600 dams in Kansas have been identified as significant or high hazards if breached. The state has jurisdiction over 400 of these dams.

“There are 29 out there where we need to have action,” Lewis said. “Some of these we’ve known about for a number of years. We don’t have the enforcement tools.”

He told members of the Kansas House committee devoted to water issues that the Department of Agriculture lacked authority to enforce safety standards designed to correct problems at weakened dams. In these cases, he said, the state must convince a county attorney to take court action.

One option would be for the Legislature to grant the department ability to impose civil fines on landowners who decline to repair unsafe dams on their property, he said.

Lewis said the agriculture department had 3.5 full-time equivalent employees to deal with oversight of dams in the state. That breaks down to 700 dams per employee, he said, compared to the national average of 200 dams per staff member.

Gov. Laura kelly included in her recommended state budget enough funding to hire three more people devoted to regulatory work on dams in Kansas, which has the second-most dams in the United States. The state’s regulatory work on dams relies on a combination of state and federal funding.

“We’re not here saying we should be where the national average is, but we do want to make sure we meet our statutory obligations,” Lewis said.

He also said the state should create an emergency fund to address dams in immediate jeopardy of failing and change state law to allow people to conduct dam inspections under the supervision of a professional engineer.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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