The situation regarding the Lake Forrest Dam has gotten so urgent that the city of Sandy Springs is moving forward to finally have it repaired.
“It has to be fixed one way or another. … Since this dam is up to 80 years old, you’re dealing with a lot of bad soil, bad materials that have to be excavated out,” said Amir Fallahli, the city’s stormwater services unit manager.
At its meeting Oct. 1 at City Springs, the Sandy Springs City Council voted 5-0 to approve task order No. 6 to prepare final engineering design services for Schnabel Engineering to conduct the dam’s rehabilitation project. District 2 Councilman Steve Soteres was absent.
Built in 1955 or possibly 20 years earlier based on recent document discoveries, the dam was reclassified by the Safe Dams Program of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Environmental Protection Division (EPD) as a Category I dam in July 2009, meaning it has the potential for loss of human life if it fails. In February 2015 officials and engineers warned council members and residents of the possibility the dam could collapse if not repaired.
Since then the city has been working with a Schnabel consultant to look at ways to fix the dam. It is located on the city’s southern border and is partly in the city of Atlanta, so both cities share responsibility for it through an intergovernmental agreement in which each pays about $1.9 million, though more costs will likely be added once the project’s construction is approved.
In addition to the two cities, the dam has three other owners: Three Lakes Corp. (an organization set up by 33 property owners living near the lake and dam) and two individual property owners (Gilbert Aleman and William Harrison). After the owners were identified, Schnabel prepared a preliminary engineering evaluation report in May 2012.
According to city documents, from 2015 to 2016 the city conducted an emergency drawdown of water from the main lake to avoid a potential dam breach. Since August 2016, extensive preliminary work has been done for design alternative analysis based on the EPD and to prevent litigation.
The city reviewed design alternatives based on cost effectiveness, environmental and property impacts, traffic, the project’s timeline, overall safety considerations and local, federal and state regulatory requirements. From those considerations, the city staff recommended the two design options to further evaluate and coordinate with dam owners.
There are two design options: the full-pool option and the reduced lake-level option. The full-pool one is expected to cost $4.86 million with a 15-month construction period. The reduced lake-level one is expected to cost $5.9 million to $6.95 million and take about 18 months to build. But the project’s design, permitting and procurement phases could push its timeline to 31 months total, according to city documents.
The last time the council was updated on the dam prior to the Oct. 1 meeting was in September 2017. Since then the condition of the dam has worsened, Fallahli said, adding its pipes are corroded.
Also in the past two years, the city has conducted analyses of the dam and required inspections and updated its repair plan but hadn’t moved forward until this month. Plus, in August the city of Atlanta received a notice of violation letter and a draft consent agreement from the EPD, and Sandy Springs is expected to get a similar letter any day.
According to a city news release, the dam is deficient the following ways: inappropriate vegetation on the embankment, a steep downstream slope, existing conduits in the dam are leaking and have likely exceeded the design life and inadequate spillway capacity.
While Sandy Springs is moving forward on the dam’s repair and Atlanta likely will follow suit, the issue of who will pay for it other than the two cities drew long discussions from the council at the work session and meeting prior to its vote.
“If we do nothing and that dam fails, we have a catastrophic loss of Lake Forrest Drive and that’s not a risk this body is willing to take,” Mayor Rusty Paul said. “We may all see and are willing to get to the financial contributions of the owners. One, even though the lake has been lowered, there’s still the possibly of loss of life if the dam fails. We could lose houses and lives if the dam fails. Second, (there is) the catastrophic (possibly) of the road collapsing.”
District 5 Councilman Tibby DeJulio said the property owners living near the lake should pay their fair share, though the owners have not yet agreed to pay some of the costs, Fallahli said.
“Would you like to spend $4.8 million to fix my house? This is a property improvement for these residents,” he told City Attorney Dan Lee with a raised voice after Lee said the city couldn’t wait to collect funds from those neighbors until after it moved forward on the repair project.
Karen Meinzen McEnerny, a former councilwoman who lives close the dam, asked the council to have the design vote stricken from the agenda at its Sept. 17 meeting and brought up again at the next meeting because residents living nearby hadn’t had a chance to view the city’s plans for repairing it. Her wish was granted, and the neighbors met with Sandy Springs representatives about the project Sept. 23 to get details on the available repair options.
“This is a party none of us want to be in, but we all gotta do it,” she said of moving forward with the repair and its associated costs.