How safe are our dams?


(WFXR) Lynchburg, Va. – A year ago, hundreds of Lynchburg residents were at risk, as College Lake Dam was close to collapsing.

Had that happened, it would have been tragic.

Despite a lot of work from Lynchburg City officials, as things stand right now it could happen again.

Dam failures are a big concern across the country.

Lynchburg Director of Water Resources Tim Mitchell will never forget the white-knuckle moment when water was flowing over the College Lake Dam.

“We were very close to the dam completely failing,” Tim Mitchell, Lynchburg Director of Water Resources, said. “We estimated close to 10,000 cubic feet per second, so it’s an enormous amount of water.”

On August 2nd, 2018, storms dumped some 6-8 inches of rain in about two hours. The water levels at College Lake jumped 13-14 feet, overtopping the earthen dam, crossing Lakeside Drive, and collapsing part of a rock wall. At that point, the situation was critical. The dam could have collapsed at any moment, sending a wall of water initially some 17-20 feet high racing downstream toward dozens of homes.”

Not far from College Lake Dam, the Brookville-Timberlake Volunteer Fire Department knows just how bad a dam failure can be.

On June 22, 1995, Central Virginia faced a similar situation, with heavy rain putting tremendous pressure on the dam at Timber Lake.

Carter Martin was searching through some cars stranded in floodwaters, looking for anyone trapped inside.

He was tied to a rope, with four other firefighters holding on.

It wouldn’t matter.

The Timberlake Dam essentially exploded.

That sent a massive wave of water directly toward the firefighters.

Robert Ore, Former Brookville-Timberlake Volunteer Firefighter said in an instant, they were all fighting for their lives.

“That’s when it really got bad. It was like, it came. It was like washing us away. It was so hard, I didn’t think I could make it but then adrenaline kicked in. I got a few more, maybe 10 feet and got out.”

Martin was ripped away.

When they found him, it was too late.

He left behind a wife and a two-year-old daughter.

The floods also killed a woman who was just driving home and was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mark Ogden, a specialist on dams, says dam failures are a big concern across the country, with possibly millions of people living in potential danger zones.

“Very large dams, above populated areas, and you could easily see significant walls of water like 20-, 30-, 40-, 50-feet high that could impact a community that is not very far downstream,” said Ogden.

Back at College Lake Dam, most concerning for Lynchburg officials is that, if something isn’t changed, water could overtop the dam again.

There’s about a four percent chance every single year.

So city officials, like Epiphany Soward, monitor the dam very closely.

“I take pictures every week of the slope. Make sure we’re not losing any material, nothing’s eroding or sloughing off,” Soward said.

The city has reinforced the dam with grout and it’s working to remove the dam entirely, replacing it with a new bridge to keep traffic and water flowing.

Erin Hawkins, Water Quality Manager, said: “Having that bridge, we’ll be able to elevate it. We’ll be able to have it expand to allow these flood waters to move through here, and maintain traffic flow through the city.”

Total cost for the dam removal and new bridge installation is expected to cost the city 30-50 Million dollars.

The high cost of repairs is why many dams don’t get needed repairs.

Many are on private property and the dams don’t bring in any revenue.

Virginia does very well, compared to other states, in having emergency response plans in place.

This website,, is a great resource for people who live downstream from a dam.

It’s also very important to communicate with local emergency officials to be aware of the plans in place and know what to do if a dam should be close to failure.

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