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dam cavalier attitude

teton dam failureIn late February, Dallas Erickson presented to the Bitterroot Amateur Radio Club a view of the risk behind the Painted Rocks Dam. Nature has a way of returning these canyons to their original state. The transformation is usually spectacular… particularly to those humans who live in the path or know someone who did.

On February 23rd I wrote about the risk potential:
Dam Threatens Darby, Conner, Hamilton.
I also posted Dallas’ write up here:
Painted Rocks Dam. We need to act now.

A dam failure would likely begin with a change in shape of the dam face that can be measured by simple technology. Next would be an extraordinarily rapid rise in water levels that also can be measured by simple technology. Those two tools could be linked by redundant automated warning systems that, in turn, could trigger human-actuated alarms in the flood path with sirens, Sheriff’s Office warning responses and Bitterroot Emergency Amateur Radio Services warning systems getting thousands of people to high ground in plenty of time.

Since none of the warning systems are in place on our dam, I took it upon myself to find out why not … and to ENCOURAGE our public servants to put them in place if that appeared to be warranted.

It took a time, patience and persistence to get an appointment with the executives in the Office of Emergency Management,Ravalli County. On April 10th, I met with Erik Hoover and Ron Nicholas – Ron very soon to retire and Eric the future acting director. I started the conversation thus:

These engineering projections in case of a Painted Rocks Dam failure seem extreme to me. Conner under water makes sense. 25-feet of water in Darby is somewhat believable too.

But 43-feet of water in Hamilton with all the wide areas in between the dam and Hamilton stretches my imagination.

My first question is, “Do you think these projections are realistic?”

OEM: We aren’t engineers, but, yes, we believe them.

Ted: In that case, it could mean 10,000 of my friends and neighbors washed away.

OEM: Hmmm. I guess that might be about right.

Ted: And there is no warning system? – or plans for one?

OEM: No. No.

We had a nice meeting that, surprising me, lasted over an hour. The end result was they seemed perfectly happy to watch me act as an unpaid Ravalli County Emergency Management planner and promised to give me a contact e-mail address for the appropriate person in the DNRC Missoula Water Resources Regional Office “who OWN the dam”. A couple of days later I had that and mailed the following letter to Larry Schock:

Larry, I recently met with Erik Hoover and Ron Nicholas in the Office of Emergency Management, Ravalli County, Montana.

I am the president of the regional radio club (BARC) and member of a sub-group, the Bitterroot Emergency Amateur Radio Services (BEARS).

I am also a member of the group of people who would be underwater according to the engineering projections for a Painted Rocks Dam failure. That group could include 10,000 of my friends and neighbors. That concerns me.

I think our radio groups could be significant resources in sounding an alarm, if we had some notice of the failure. We have several very high-level technicians who could be instrumental in designing and implementing an alarm system. We also have communications training, information-passing, planning and human skills that could be quite valuable.

I would like very much to have a discussion with you on improving the number of people who would not get washed away in a dam failure – not to mention the benefits such planning and organization has in other potential disasters.

Could we meet sometime soon?

Ted Dunlap, President BARC
Bitterroot Amateur Radio Club, Ravalli County, Montana

Hearing nothing, while the spring runoff starts and Painted Rocks reservoir begins to fill, I sent a follow-up e-mail, to which I received this response:

Hello Mr. Dunlap,

I did receive your email last week concerning Painted rocks Dam and your generous offer to volunteer your services, however I was unable to respond immediately because I was out of the office most of the week for work related matters.

I have forwarded your offer to the appropriate individuals within the DNRC, and they will be in communication with the Ravalli Co. officials concerning this issue. We will make sure to keep you in the loop once we have made the proper arrangements to discuss the matter with Ravalli Co..

Thank you for your concern about this matter and for taking the time to contact the DNRC.

Larry A. Schock, CFM, DNRC, WRD, MRO

It appears that those whose lives will be unaffected by a dam failure have about as much concern as those who are ignorant of the potential. “Imagine that. Who’da thunk? Let’s add that one to our log entries… and, by the way, what’s for lunch?” etc.

This year is as good as any for the dam failure. Extraordinarily frequent earthquakes are rocking Idaho. Yellowstone volcano caldera is rising abnormally with unusually strong/frequent earthquake activity … see Yellowstone rumbles from March 23rd. The volcanologists claim a Yellowstone eruption would be 1,000 times that of Mount St. Helens, which sent major shockwaves 50 miles and beyond. They also say “When, not IF, it blows, it will reshape everything about western and central USofA.

That all may be over dramatic, but it clearly serves as a reminder that some relatively inexpensive warning systems could be nearly priceless … as soon as this year. Again I refer to the Probability/Severity ratio taught Hewlett Packard managers back when I was learning from Bill and Dave:

If the severity is high enough, even the lowest probability deserves attention.

It is time for the Ravalli County Supervisors to step up to the plate.

Or, if they can’t get the Probability/Severity concept,

To step aside for competent managers to take the job.

This year happens to be one of those where Ravalli County voters can help them with this decision.