Dangerous Dam: Rodman Dam suffers from serious structural problems

by Bruce Kaster

Rodman Dam, near Palatka,  has potentially serious structural problems that were initially recognized in a dam assessment report to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in 2015. 

This report listed numerous problems that indicated the potential for dam failure. When we gained access to the report in 2020, we became concerned. We learned that dam assessments were conducted in 2017 and 2019, but these subsequent reports were not  available to the public. 

Pursuit to a FOIA request to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, we obtained these reports causing us increased concern about the dam’s integrity. 

In order to determine whether the dam posed a serious risk to the public, we hired Givler Engineering Inc., a respected earthen dam engineering company from San Antonio. Their report confirms that Rodman Dam has significant structural problems and that a breach poses substantial risk to the public in portions of Putnam county.  A large portion of the earthen dam is on USFS land and by agreement the state is required to provide the Forest Service with their dam assessment reports and to repair any deficiencies noted. To date none of the problems identified in the 2015, 2017 or 2019 reports have been corrected. 

Both the state and the Forest Service are on notice of the deficiencies and the failure to make the necessary repairs or modifications, but the Putnam County public officials and threatened members of the public are apparently unaware of this serious hazard. The unfortunate folks who own property, homes or businesses on the Saint Johns, from Lazy Days Camp Resort in the south, to Stephens Point on the north, are all in the potential flood inundation zone. 

This includes River Bend Condominiums at Beecher Point and Welaka, which face the double whammy of potentially higher flood insurance – if they can get it and substantially decreased property values thru no fault of their own. This analysis was based on information from 2007. 

Subsequently in the 2015 dam assessment, the inundation zone was expanded to include an area from Orange Point in the south to Turkey Island in the north. Undoubtedly if the Putnam County Commissioners had been made aware of this flooding hazard they could have dealt with it but they were kept in the dark. Even now that the reports have finally been made public, some of the officials are challenging the facts established in the three state dam assessments and the independent dam engineering analysis.

It is widely accepted that all earthen dams leak. As they age, leakage tends to increase, especially in earthen dams that are over 50 years old and constructed mostly of sand, such as Rodman Dam. 

As these old earthen dams age, they are increasingly subject to failure. The dam assessment reports of 2015, 2017 and 2019 all indicate structural problems in the dam. The comprehensive updated evaluation of the condition of the dam, completed by GEI Engineering Inc., was issued in February 2021, and is critical of the dam’s condition. 

The agreement with the USFS requires all deficiencies in the dam be repaired. Yet, to date none of the significant deficiencies in the assessment reports have been repaired.

A catastrophic failure of the dam poses substantial risk of loss of life, property damage and adverse environmental impact. The property damage alone would exceed $57,000,000.

In order to protect the public, the dam should be breached and partially removed. The simplest and most effective means to immediately eliminate the pending hazard of dam failure would be a permanent drawdown of Rodman Pool. Upon completion of the drawdown, the dam control structure should be removed as the most cost effective means of partial restoration of the river until a portion of the earthen dam can be removed.

The question is whether Governor DeSantis is aware of the hazard of dam failure and is willing to order an immediate drawdown of the reservoir to protect the public and begin restoration of the river.

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