I-Team checks on structural integrity at Falls Lake Dam after drenching floods

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The I-Team investigates just how safe the Falls Lake Dam is. (WTVD)

Here's something you may not think about: Falls Lake is basically the Neuse River with a plug in it. That plug is the Falls Lake Dam.

On the heels of Hurricane Matthew and the drenching that followed in April, the I-Team decided to check on the dam, see who's in charge, and how it's doing. In the process, we found that the main mechanism they have for keeping the dam intact is the very thing that regularly floods communities downstream.

The government built the dam in the early 1980s and has been maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers ever since. Megan Garrett runs the safety program at the dam and says it's never had any major issues or reason to put into play the Emergency Action Plan (EAP).

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Megan Garret speaks with Jon Camp about the Falls Lake Dam


Garrett walked us through the steps they take to make sure the dam is intact, from GPS markers to water pressure gauges to regular basic visual inspections. She says there's been no degradation or slippage of the dam in it's more than three decades of use.

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A visualization of how the Falls Lake Dam works


But not everyone is convinced the dam is being managed as well as it could be. Bobby Harrison has lived a few miles below the dam on the Neuse River for more than 30 years.

Every time the Army Corps of Engineers lets a certain amount of water out of the dam and down the spillway, Harrison's yard starts to fill up with water. In major storms, if the Corps opens the gates to allow about 4,000 cubic feet of water per second to flow out, Harrison's street starts getting wet. A few weeks ago during a period of heavy rain, the Corps let 6,000 cubic feet of water.

"It seems to be fill and flush," Harrison said.

He wants the Corp of Engineers to rethink how and when they start releasing water in anticipation of a major storm.

"They fill it up and they flush it. So, once it gets filled, they dump it on us. They don't do it gradually, they do it rapidly. Let a little out earlier and then stretch it out over a longer period of time."

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Bobby Harrison talks about living downstream from the dam


The I-Team put the question to the Army Corps of Engineers. Lisa Parker, Public Affairs Officer for the Army Corps of Engineers, emailed this answer:

"We don't release prematurely because weather forecasts are often not accurate, and it would depend where the rainfall fell in the basin and how much, also, was the ground already saturated, or were there long periods of time of dry weather. There are a lot of variables, and one of the primary purposes of the dam is to reduce flooding. The dam is designed to experience a Probable Maximum Flood (PMF) event and not overtop. The PMF is the largest flood that could conceivably occur at this location so the probability of overtopping of the dam would be remote. As far as contingencies in the event an overtopping did occur: This type of event would not develop so quickly that we wouldn't know it was going to happen. Spillway flow would be occurring well before overtopping could start. While some evacuations downstream would have likely already taken place because of other non-failure related flooding, our Emergency Action Plan does provide procedure for notifications of local Emergency Management Agencies in the event of an expected overtopping. "

That may not satisfy those homeowners along the river whose streets turn into rivers because of how it's done now. Bobby Harrison, who's dealt with "man-made" flooding since moving in more than 30 years ago says he thinks it can be done better.

"It's been managed in the past by different people who manage it quite well. But it depends on who's in charge down there to how well they seem to manage it."

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