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Berkeley Lake fights for dam repair funding

Photo by jason

Photo by jason

BERKELEY LAKE -- A question as to whether damage to Berkeley Lake's earthen dam was caused by last year's floods has city officials fighting for federal emergency repair funds.

Mayor Lois Salter said cracks erupted in the dam the day after last September's historic floods, but federal officials contend that much of the damage existed before then.

The disagreement has left about $2 million of the $4 million repair bill in jeopardy, as officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have agreed to pay just over $1 million.

"That's why FEMA was put there, to help people out in a natural disaster. I can't think of anything more important," Salter said, pointing to a subdivision in danger if the dam fails.

While FEMA's Kurt Pickering says the agency believes the dam needed repairs before the floods, Salter says the city has a good case.

Dating back to the late '40s, when the city's history as a fishing getaway began, the dam was rebuilt in the 1980s.

An inspection by the Georgia Safe Dams program found no water within the dam not long before the storm, but geotechnical inspections after the floods showed water in the dam, she said.

Immediately after the flood, city officials paid to have about 11 feet of water siphoned out of the lake to relieve the pressure on the dam, and Salter said much more water would have to be drained before construction begins.

Last weekend, Salter told a standing-room-only crowd the situation, and she said many residents were upset.

All the city can do, she added, is appeal. once FEMA determines the scope of the damage.

"Federal law lets us pay for repair of damage that is caused by disaster. We cannot pay for pre-existing conditions," Pickering said, noting that the Berkeley Lake dam is the most costly of the more than 250 projects in Gwinnett caused by the storm.

"We want them to get every dollar they have eligible. ... The only point of dispute right now is what is eligible."

Even if the agency picks up 75 percent of the $4 million construction price tag -- the maximum allowed -- the city would still have to come up with $1 million to pay for the repairs. That number is equivalent to the city's entire annual budget, and Salter acknowledged that it would be tough.

A state loan would be an option for helping raise the funds, but because of a state budget crisis, that money may not be available, the mayor said, making a general obligation bond or tax increase the likely alternatives.

"I genuinely believe that someone along the way is going to do the right thing," Salter said. "We just want it to be safe for people."