Gambling on Lake Roland Dam

September 20, 1992

How fragile is Lake Roland Dam? At a state hearing earlier this year, Maryland's chief official for dam safety called the 131-year-old earthen structure in central Baltimore County "a major disaster waiting to happen."

The official, Brad Iarossi, added, "We were lucky the dam did not fail" in the wake of two tropical storms, Agnes in 1972 and David in 1979. A 1984 study described a once-in-10,000-years storm that would smash the structure with a 9 1/2 -foot-high wall of water. An eight-foot-high wave would then rush down the Jones Falls for six miles; downtown Baltimore would be under four feet of water.

The sense of urgency about the dam becomes even more severe with predictions that the eastern United States will soon enter a 25-year period of hurricane activity that could make Agnes and David look like spring showers.

Not a moment too soon -- indeed, after years of foot-dragging by the state, the county and Baltimore City, which owns the structure -- the long-overdue repairs to the dam seem to be on a schedule that could see them done within two years. The three governments will share the $7 million cost.

A gatehouse that can divert water from the lake basin to the downstream channel of the Jones Falls was recently fixed. Work on the dam itself should begin later this year and will include widening the original stone spillway from 120 to 170 feet and raising it six feet with a reinforcing layer of concrete; adding an emergency spillway about 75 feet wide to either side of the main spillway; and installing a 10-foot-high wall beside either emergency spillway, as further deterrence against water that may spill off to the sides of the dam.

Why, 20 years after Agnes, is work finally beginning on Lake Roland Dam? Blame the dithering of politicians. Last year the General Assembly took what its members admitted was a big risk by appropriating only enough money so the repairs would again have to be put on hold. The state's politicians crossed their fingers and hoped Mother Nature wouldn't punish them for their gamble.

Even with the major work about to begin, they have to pray a monster storm doesn't sock the area before the repairs are finished. Too bad our elected leaders let so much water pass over the dam before they took the proper action.

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