More than 60 years after initial efforts began to shore up flood protection in Culpeper, federal, state and local officials gathered Thursday morning to dedicate newly upgraded dams strong enough to withstand a hurricane.
A decade in the making, the massive rehabilitation to the Lake Pelham and Mountain Run Lake dams will protect some 4,000 residents downstream from massive flooding in the event of a weather event so severe it would drop three feet of rain in 24 hours. That was the “maximum precipitation event” the dams had to be built to withstand per recently enacted mandates by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
“I’m sort of the bad guy in having to enforce those unfunded smandates,” said DCR Director Clyde Cristman during Thursday’s dam dedication on Lake Pelham Drive, located in the densely populated Lakeview housing development.
As he spoke, drones buzzed overhead and geese honked from the still surface of the lake under a hot August sun.
“We hope we were able to bring a common-sense approach to it,” Cristman said of the projects.
That approach involved tapping into state and federal funds to pay for the nearly $18 million project. Sixty-five percent of the cost was picked up by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the remaining 35 percent is split between the DCR and town of Culpeper.
Cristman noted this month marked the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Camille, which caused catastrophic death and destruction in Nelson County, dumping 25 to 30 inches in a few hours. In Nelson, 124 people were killed during Camille on the night of August 19, 1969, according to the Lynchburg News & Advance.
“We’ve had more dams fail in Virginia this year than in the last decade,” Cristman said, noting the potential loss for life downstream when dams give out.
The DCR Director said as he continues to enforce the new dam safety standards statewide, Culpeper would be used as an example of effective collaboration in enacting the upgrades.
On the ground, Culpeper Public Works Director Jim Hoy took the lead on oversight of the projects, which faced hurdles during construction. The biggest challenge last year was the amount of rainfall—the most in Culpeper history.
“This is graduation day,” he said at Thursday’s dedication. “We are very pleased with the outcome and collaboration with our sponsors and the community. We delivered two rehab projects that will withstand the worst case scenario—people look to the government to do that.”
A stalled hurricane over the northern Piedmont is unlikely, Hoy said, but possible. If such an event had happened prior to the dam projects, the dams would have breached, he said. Such a failure would likely happen with little or no notice, Hoy said.
Culpeper Mayor Mike Olinger said the dam upgrades make the community safer.
“This was all spurred by someone sitting behind a desk who came up with a probable storm we could have and wash the town out,” he said.
Olinger recalled drought conditions from several years ago, when Orange County officials had to come to Culpeper to get drinking water for its residents.
“Culpeper has always been fortunate to have a superior water supply,” he said.
It’s a great day for Culpeper, said Town Manager Chris Hively.
“After 10 years, I can finally say we’re done,” he said.
Hively recalled many meetings over the past decade with state and federal officials about the Culpeper dam project, and commended the government partners for providing “invaluable guidance” on how to fund the work. There was no federal money available at that time, “But I left with a feeling they would take care of Culpeper one way or the other.”
State Conservationist Jack Bricker called the initiative “vital and beneficial work.”
“We look forward to sustaining this partnership with the town of Culpeper,” he said.
State Senator Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, supported state funding for the project in Richmond.
“It is important to have water mitigation in place so as to not lose life or property during torrential rains,” he said. “The counties and localities can’t do it by themselves, so we have to continue to work on it. We all understand the need.”
The new dams on Lake Pelham and Mountain Run Lake are each outfitted with a 144-foot-wide, six-cycle structural concrete labyrinth weir spillway over the embankment. Each has an earthen berm across the existing auxiliary spillway as well as a stilling basin and rip-rap outlet protection below the dam.