Tropical storm Agnes took aim at Lake Roland Dam in 1972 and nearly knocked it flat.
Seven years later, tropical storm David blew through and, again, a torrent of water almost made the historic dam history.
"In '72 and '79, we were lucky the dam did not fail. If the storms were a little bit bigger, the dam would have been gone," Brad Iarossi, the chief state official for dam safety, said last night at a public informational hearing on plans to repair the 131-year-old dam at Lake Roland in Robert E. Lee Park.
The state Water Resources Administration, an agency of the Department of Natural Resources, called the hearing to review Baltimore's application to make the necessary safety improvements to the dam.
Although the dam is about a half-mile north of Baltimore, the city owns the property.
From the time of the dam's construction in 1861 until 1915, it was a source of drinking water for the city. Now the lake is known primarily as a popular spot for hiking, fishing, picnicking and other outdoor activities.
If DNR approves the application, as expected, the city will begin advertising next month for a contractor to do the repairs. Work could begin this July and should last about 18 months.
The estimated cost of the project is about $7 million. The city and the county have set aside half of that amount, and the state reportedly has pledged $2.5 million. The General Assembly is expected to appropriate the remaining $1 million during the current session.
Last night's hearing was held at the Baltimore County Courthouse and attended by about 30 people, including state, city and county officials and residents of the Lake Roland area.
The consensus in the room was that, as Mr. Iarossi put it, "This dam is unsafe, no question about that. This is a major disaster waiting to happen."
"I'm just glad we're finally at this point where we're about to repair the dam. It's been a long time getting here," he added.
The push to repair the dam dates to the year of Agnes, when Congress authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to undertake a national program to inspect the country's creakier dams. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter directed the Army engineers to begin a more intensive, four-year study of non-federal dams in the United States.
Published in 1981, the report found that, of 8,639 dams inspected, 2,884 of them were deemed "unsafe." Of those, 132 required emergency work. Four dams in Maryland were ruled unsafe, but all were in the "non-emergency" category. Three of the dams are in Western Maryland and already have been repaired, leaving the Lake Roland structure as the last of the four to be made safe, said Mr. Iarossi.
Ed Serp, of Whitman Requardt and Associates, a Baltimore firm of consulting engineers, presented recommendations for the repair project at the hearing. He explained that his firm's suggestions were the culmination of at least two previous plans for the dam's repairs. One of the plans was offered by Whitman Requardt in 1988, the other by Terraqua Resources Corp. of Hunt Valley in 1984.
Mr. Serp described two phases of work. The first would involve restoring the gatehouse on the east side of the dam. One of two original, currently non-functioning tunnels in the gatehouse would be repaired so excess water could be drained from the lake basin and diverted around the dam and into the downstream channel.
Allied Contractors Inc. of Baltimore is doing this phase of the repair and should complete the work this May, Mr. Serp said.
The second phase would involve the key part of the project, the repair of the dam structure.
This work would include widening the dam's spillway from 120 to 170 feet; making the spillway 6 feet higher; reinforcing the original stone spillway with a thick wall of concrete; adding an emergency spillway about 75 feet wide to either side of the main spillway; and installing a 10-foot-high wall behind either emergency spillway, as further deterrence against water that may spill off to the sides of the dam.
As Mr. Iarossi explained, these repairs would relieve pressure on the dam if a major storm in the league of Agnes or David should occur.
"The dam would be safe, but all that water would still rush on through in a major storm event. You can't stop God, you know," he added.
The project will require that the water behind the dam be drained during the 18-month repair period. Lake Roland residents complained that the draining would destroy wetlands, threaten wildlife and make the area unsightly.
"We support the project, but we prefer that the lake not be drawn down because of the adverse effect on wetlands and the ecosystem," said Louise Hildreth, a board member of the Robert E. Lee Park Conservancy.
John Maple, an engineer with Baltimore County Department of Public Works, said there is no reasonable alternative to draining the lake. If, for example, a temporary dam were constructed behind the permanent dam, there would be no guarantee that water would not spill over the temporary structure and endanger work crews on the other side.
Michael Baker, of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's office, said city and state officials have discussed restoring the Lake Roland wetlands when the project is done. Also, while the work is in progress, the city and state may move any large groupings of Lake Roland fish to another body of water, such as Loch Raven Reservoir, Mr. Baker added.