The Safe Dams Program, which regulates dams like the one at Lake Wendy in White County, came about as a result of one of the worst dam breaks in Georgia history.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 6, 1977, an earthen dam above the 186-foot Toccoa Falls ruptured, sending 700,000 tons of water crashing down into the lower campus of Toccoa Falls College, a small Bible school.
The failure of the Kelly Barnes Dam resulted in the deaths of 39 people, including 20 children. Hydrologists believe the water, as it rushed down the gorge, reached speeds of 150 miles per hour.
The worst damage was inflicted in a community for married students that was primarily comprised of mobile homes.
Ed Fiegle, program manager for the Safe Dams Program for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, was among the early staff members of the program, which was created at the 1978 session of the Georgia General Assembly and began operation on July 1 of that year.
"The high hazard dams we regulate are inspected annually," Fiegle said. "Sometime there are indicators that we are able to catch. Then, there are times they develop problems that are structural in nature that you don’t know about until they show up."
State law defines a dam as being 25 feet tall or storing 100 acre-feet of water at full pool. An acre-foot is one acre, one foot deep. They are classified by the risk they pose to people downstream.
"If a dam failed suddenly and would cause probable loss of life, then it would be category one and is regulated by the Safe Dams Act," Fiegle said. Dams that do not pose a potential loss of life are category two.
There are 5,760 dams on the state inventory, including 465 that are category one dams that are inspected annually.
The remaining dams are reviewed once every five years to determine any changes in their status.
A federal investigative board appointed in 1977 to study the failure of the Kelly Barnes Dam in Toccoa concluded that a combination of factors led to the disaster. The report said the dam was in generally poor condition and the most probable causes were a local slide on the steep downstream slope, followed by a progressive erosion, saturation of the downstream embankment, and subsequently a total collapse of the structure.