Don Smart, chairman of the Cross Timbers Soil and Water Conservation District (CTSWCD), recently addressed Erath County commissioners with an update on area conservation dam maintenance and delivered the news that thanks to the Texas Legislature, $15 million have been earmarked for the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board (TSSWCB) for grants. The funds will be allocated during the 2010-11 biennium for O&M (operation and maintenance) and structural repairs.

Smart said the funding came after years of pushing by local districts and said the legislature achieved the $15 million figure after reports from local districts on the costs for maintaining and repairing the structures.

Prior to the allocation, districts were struggling to raise adequate funds and the job of maintaining, operating and repairing the dams. The local conservation district is responsible for 75 dams and relies on funding from Erath County to cover costs. 

“Erath County has always made an annual contribution to the district,” Smart said. “But other counties, such as Comanche, have not supported their district (Upper Leon SWCD). There are a lot of those (who don’t offer support) counties out there.”

John Foster, programs officer with the TSSWCB said the agency decided the most efficient way to deliver funds to local conservation districts was to develop two grant programs - one for O&M and the other for repairs. There are a total of 106 local conservation districts in the state.

“We then decided it would be best to get the O&M program running while we work on the finishing touches of the repair program,” Foster said.  

Foster said there are about 2,000 conservation dams statewide that are still serving their purpose, are structurally sound and provide economic, as well as life and limb benefits by controlling the release of waters.

But the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) said as of 2008 there were 33 high hazard dams older than 50 years in the state and said that number is expected to jump to 113 by 2012. As of July 2008, the NCRS reported only 10 of the dams have been rehabilitated and 238 need upgrades. The total estimated cost of rehabilitation needs in Texas is $349 million according to the NRCS.

“These structures are a very important part of the state’s infrastructure,” Foster said.

According to Foster, local SWCDs sponsor the dams, which were built by the federal government and erected on private property. The local districts are charged with maintaining and inspecting the dams and guaranteeing the structures remain in good operating condition and do not pose hazards to the public or property owners.

“Over the years, there has never been state or federal funding, it has been the responsibility of the local sponsors,” Foster said. “A lot of the time, county governments, municipalities and sometimes water districts contribute to the costs. There is supposed to be one taxing entity involved. SWCDs are not taxing entities.”

But the time came when costs became too much for sponsors to handle. Due to the difficulty in obtaining the needed funding locally, and in recognition of the importance of the flood retarding structures, money from the state’s general fund was appropriated to the cause.