Safety of Rio Grande Dams in Question
U.S. Agency Sued to Disclose Flooding Maps, Emergency Plans and Dam Conditions
Washington, DC —The safety of two large international storage dams on the Rio Grande River and the adequacy of emergency plans in the event of failure are at the heart of a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). A federal border agency’s refusal to release repair status reports, inundation maps and preparedness plans leaves communities on both sides of the border in the dark about chances of and damage from flooding due to dam and levee breaks.
This little-known agency called the United States Section, International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) implements border treaties with Mexico and, in so doing, jointly operates several international dams and water treatment plants along the border. Using criteria developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the USIBWC itself has acknowledged that Falcon and Amistad Dams are in “urgent” and “high priority” need of repair, respectively. The rating for Amistad Dam, which is riddled with sinkholes, means “The likelihood of failure … is too high to assure public safety.” If the Amistad Dam were to fail, nearly 5 million acre-feet of water would be released. Falcon Dam also has a history of foundation seepage and there are serious questions about its overall stability.
PEER filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for materials about these dams and Rio Grande flood control levees but the agency refused to release especially pertinent information, including –
- More than 75 inundation maps, showing what areas will be flooded following dam failure. USIBWC claims the maps are “deliberative” in nature and therefore not subject to release;
- A 2009 report issued by a panel of technical advisors regarding the condition of Amistad Dam. USIBWC withheld the entire document as “related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency”;
- Much of the Emergency Action Plan was blacked out, including the “Guidance for Determining the Emergency Level”; “Notifications and Emergency Service Contacts”; “Location and Vicinity Maps”; “Summary of People/Structures at Greatest Risk”; and “Reservoir Elevation Area-Capacity Data”. There is even a partial redaction in the section titled “Directions to Dam.” In the absence of such information, the public is urged to call 911 in the event of an emergency.
“A map is not a pre-decisional document. This material should be posted on the agency website; we should not have to sue to get it,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who filed the complaint, noting that federal regulations and guidance direct federal agencies to share emergency preparedness information with affected local communities. “How can communities plan when they are being denied basic information about how weak the structures are and what areas will likely be flooded?”
The agency did, however, release materials to PEER that outlined serious concerns about USIBWC-built levees. One March 26, 2010 report about the newly reconstructed Presidio Levee concluded that “seepage beneath the existing embankment represents a serious risk to the levee system during a 25-year design flood event.”
In 2009, USIBWC dismissed its General Counsel, Robert McCarthy, for reporting safety concerns as well as serious management breakdowns to outside authorities. PEER is representing McCarthy whose case is awaiting decision before the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, the tribunal which handles civil service whistleblower appeals.
“Candor and competence have not been the hallmarks of this agency,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch who has labeled the USIBWC the worst agency in federal service, an assessment with which its employees seem to agree based upon the extraordinarily low marks given to agency leadership in the latest Best Places to Work survey. “As it is currently constituted, the USIBWC should not be entrusted with public safety responsibilities.”