DID YOU KNOW?
Watershed Dams Saved Texans Estimated $40 Million in Flood Damage Costs
Temple, Texas - The month of May was one for the Texas record books. It will go down in history as the wettest May on record, shattering all previous records. Rainfall totals of 15 to 20 inches were documented across the state with many areas receiving more than their average annual rainfall in May alone.
According to the National Weather Service in Fort Worth, over 35 trillion gallons of rain fell across Texas in May, which is enough water to cover the entire state of Texas in eight inches of water.
While the rains did bring much needed drought relief across the state, it fell in such torrential downpours in many instances that roads and bridges were washed out, stranding motorists and sadly costing the lives of a reported 27 Texans.
The story that hasn’t been told is about the damage that didn’t happen thanks to 2,041 watershed dams across the state that quietly functioned as they were designed to do.
“The more than 2,000 dam sites across the state that were affected by the rainfall provided at least $40 million in estimated damage reduction benefits from storms throughout the month of May,” says NRCS Landscape Conservation and Planning Leader Lori Ziehr. “Savings include road and bridge damage reduction, reduced loss of crops and livestock and damages to homes.”
Additionally, the structures also provide improved recreation, water supplies and wildlife habitat. Texas watershed dams annually provide over $140 million in benefits to the state.
According to Ziehr, in addition to the existing 2,041 watershed dam sites, the state would have realized an additional $20 million in damage reduction savings if the 266 planned dams awaiting funding had been constructed.
These watershed dams often appear to be very large stock ponds or fishing and recreation sites scattered across the countryside, but in a heavy rainfall event their specific design and function is critical. They capture raging floodwaters and hold it, releasing it slowly downstream. Slowing the water’s velocity greatly reduces flood damage.
In the 1950s, the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service worked with local Soil and Water Conservation Districts and other sponsors through the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act to construct these watershed dams, or flood control structures, in an effort to protect homes and property during flooding events.
“These structures continue to reduce the impacts of flooding, and they are complimented by conservation practices within the watershed that reduce erosion and improve water quality,” says John Mueller, NRCS State Conservation Engineer. “These watershed dams are an important part of our state’s infrastructure – millions of people depend on them for protection from floods and for providing clean drinking water.”
All of the NRCS assisted flood control dams are inspected on a regular basis to ensure they are operating as designed. As dams approach their designed life expectancy, they are evaluated and rehabilitation repairs and upgrades are implemented as funding is made available.
In addition to the Federal government, the State of Texas recognizes the importance of these structures and has made great efforts to help maintain them for the safety of all Texans. In 2010 the Texas Legislature approved funding for the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board (TSSWCB) to assist these watershed dam sponsors in caring for the structures.
“Since then, the TSSWCB Flood Control Program has provided local watershed sponsors $8 million for maintenance, and $22 million for repair and rehabilitation of the watershed program dams,” states John Foster, TSSWCB program officer. “The State Flood Control Program has played an important role to ensure that the dams function properly during extreme conditions, such as those we have recently experienced."
“It is important to remember, that while all of our sites functioned as designed during the recent heavy rainfall, historic events will result in flood flows through the auxiliary spillways of the flood control structure,” Mueller adds. “Extreme caution should always be taken in flood zones.”
In addition to the structures, private landowners across the state also played a part in the network of conservation systems designed to reduce flood damage during rain events like Texas just experienced.
For example, Texas landowners have more than 8 million acres of the state voluntarily applying a conservation plan with the NRCS. Most of these plans include implementing conservation practices that reduce areas of bare soil by increasing the amount of grass and plants that cover the ground. During flooding events, the ground cover serves to slow the water down and trap sediment and debris before entering waterways. Terraces, buffer strips and grassed waterways are also effective conservation or management practices that reduce erosion, improve water conservation and create wildlife habitat.
“It is in these historic rainfall events that we can really value the benefit of these flood control structures,” says Mueller. “Combined with the conservation practices landowners have established, damage to infrastructure such as roads, bridges and railroad tracks is greatly reduced.
For more information on the NRCS watershed program, or for information on installing conservation practices on your land to help prevent erosion and reduce flooding, contact your local NRCS office located in the USDA Service Center, or learn more at www.tx.nrcs.usda.gov