When the Baldwin dam in Los Angeles County, Calif., was built in 1951, observers hailed it as a huge leap forward in engineering. At the time, people discussed the dam with the same reverence an earlier generation gave to the Titanic, which was similarly regarded as indestructible.
More than 600 oil wells were drilled in the Inglewood oil field on the eastern edge of the dam. As investigators discovered later, the oil was being produced using a new method of extraction that involved injecting water at very high pressure. Back then, it was called pressurized extraction.
The dam broke in 1963. Years after the tragedy, a scientist concluded that seismic activity was a factor in the dam’s failure. That was a controversial view in the ’70s, when his study was published.
Vazquez said that the Army Corps has used the case of the Baldwin dam in reviewing its current work, though no one knows for sure if drilling was a factor in the dam’s failure. Joe Pool Lake is very different from Baldwin, he pointed out. Baldwin sat on volatile fault lines, whereas Joe Pool sits on shallow faults that don’t pose much of a threat, he said. Joe Pool is one of the area’s newer dams, and he said it’s in good condition.
Were the dam to fail, he said, the damage would be extensive, but nowhere near the scale of Baldwin, which was in the densely populated Los Angeles area.
Mose Buchele, who recently wrote a three-part article on the ruinous state of Texas dams for State Impact Texas, a project of NPR member stations that examines state policy, found that of the 1,880 dams inspected by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in the last five years, 245 were found to be in bad condition. Around 2,000 of the state’s dams were built with federal help in the wake of the great drought of the 1950s. Almost all of those are now past or nearing the end of their projected 50-year lifespans, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Warren Samuelson, the manager of the TCEQ’s Dam Safety Program, said about 60 percent of dams in the state are privately owned, and many of the owners couldn’t afford to rehabilitate their dams even if they wanted to.
In 2008 the Texas State Auditor’s Office found that state regulators were not ensuring the proper maintenance of thousands of dams. The audit found that state inspectors had never even visited hundreds of dams that could cause catastrophic damage if they failed.
Samuelson said that his department has added staff and made progress since that audit was issued.
But regulators will not be allowed to inspect thousands of other dams, because of a state law passed in 2013. House Bill 677 exempts nearly 3,000 dams in the state from inspection. Included in that category are 216 dams ranked as significant hazards — the most hazardous category, based on the damage that would occur if they failed. That’s about 30 percent of the “significant hazard” dams in the state, Buchele wrote.
The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the possibility of a link between the earthquakes that are occurring more frequently in North Texas and subsidence caused by gas drilling. EPA researchers have said they’re not getting the data they need from Texas regulators.
Southern Methodist University researchers are also looking at the link between drilling and the recent earthquakes. The study aims to determine whether injection wells used by the drilling industry to pump vast volumes of wastewater underground are a factor in the quakes. Scientists have linked seismic activity in other states to injection wells.