Oktibbeha County leaders will spend the next two weeks figuring out the scope of a study of the county lake dam that the board of supervisors will consider authorizing at its March 16 meeting.
Representatives from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and the Army Corps of Engineers Mobile District met with county leaders Monday to assess the condition of the dam and discuss the options to address its structural problems. The dam came close to breaching and forcing a mass evacuation of the surrounding residential area in January.
The supervisors held a special-call meeting Tuesday morning to hear the Corps’ recommendation that the county authorize the study from “an entity experienced in the assessment, design and evaluation of dams toward rehabilitation and/or reconstruction,” said Dennis Mekkers, the dam safety program manager for the Corps’ Mobile District.
The county has the option of taking a few months to set up a formal agreement with Corps of Engineers and determine the cost of the study, and federal sources will cover 75 percent of the study’s cost, Mobile District senior planner Tonya Harrington said.
County Engineer Clyde Pritchard said the county should consider working with the University of Mississippi or Jackson State University to plan the scope of the study.
“There are other ways to get that done, so this may or may not be the best or most efficient path with the Corps,” Pritchard said.
When The Dispatch called Pritchard’s office this morning to follow up on why he wanted to explore options other than the Corps of Engineers, his receptionist relayed that Pritchard is “not doing interviews or talking about the dam today.”
The inspection on Monday showed Mekkers that the material on the outside of the dam levee is too steep and the ground isn’t firm enough, he said, but he would need to investigate further to be sure of the dam’s other structural flaws.
Pritchard found water seeping between the dam and the bedrock underneath it in January, pushing sand boils to the surface and forming a crack on the slope, but “it’s not clear to me that seepage is the flaw or concern of interest at this point,” Mekkers said.
The county installed pipes and diesel-fueled pumps in January to lower the water level and relieve some of the pressure on the levee, and construction crews are on standby to cut off the dam’s primary outlet valve when the pumps lower the water to a certain level. Cutting the valve will increase by four times the flow of water out of the lake into the spillways, but MDEQ has told supervisors repeatedly for decades that the spillways were built too small, dam safety division chief William McKercher said.
Several storms elevated the lake’s water level in February to the point the county almost issued a second breach warning. The pumps are still at work and cost the county about $70,000 per month to fuel and operate.
A new dam will not be less of an overall safety hazard by MDEQ standards because it will still hold more than 148 million cubic feet of water at normal operating conditions near a residential area, even if it is structurally sound, McKercher said.
“The focus for the time being is to continue to keep the lake level down to help provide storage capacity if we continue to have these large rainfall events,” he said.
SOCSD’s stake in the debate
The board voted 4-0 at its regular meeting on Monday to include the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District Board of Trustees in discussions regarding the future of the Oktibbeha County Lake Dam.
The county is responsible for the maintenance of the dam, but the school district owns most of the lake. Every 16th square mile of land in the county is leased to generate property tax revenue for the local school district, and former Mississippi State University basketball coach Rick Stansbury holds a lease on the section that includes part of the lake and yields $31,290 per year for SOCSD.
Montgomery said the county should ask the school board to consider contributing funds, including but not limited to the revenue from the 16th Section land, or research efforts that could speed up the process of potentially replacing the dam.
The Secretary of State’s office oversees management and leasing of 16th Section land, and the office did not respond to requests for information about who is responsible for the distribution of the lease revenue.
District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard lives just behind the dam’s levee and has been the most vocal advocate for repairing or replacing the dam. He said he was grateful to Montgomery for “at least making a suggestion on how we can move forward” after Montgomery had said for weeks that the board could take no action due to a lack of funding for the $8 million project.
The board voted unanimously on Feb. 24 for Pritchard to start drawing up plans to replace the dam after a public hearing saw overwhelming citizen support for replacing or eliminating the dam as soon as possible. A breach would flood the nearby residential area and force about 250 people in at least 130 households to evacuate.
The SOCSD administration declined to comment through a spokesperson. Board president John S. Brown said he has had other priorities, but the board has been monitoring the situation at the lake because it affects the school buses’ routes to pick up and drop off children who live near the lake.
“As long as we’re taking care of our students, that’s my main concern,” Brown said.
Tess Vrbin was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.