December 30, 2008 in Idaho

Ecology cracks down on unpermitted dams

Hutterites’ structure labeled ‘hazardous’
By The Spokesman-Review
Department of Ecology photo

This Washington state Department of Ecology photo shows the upstream face of Hutterian Dam and its reservoir near Spokane.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Map of this story's location

An earthen dam built without permits by the Hutterite Brethren near Reardan poses a potential threat to eight downstream homeowners, according to Washington Department of Ecology officials, who have labeled the dam as “hazardous.”

The 30-foot high dam, on a tributary of Deep Creek, 14 miles west of Spokane, needs an engineering inspection and a better spillway, said Doug Johnson, Ecology’s supervisor of dam safety.

“We need to confirm that the dam was properly built,” Johnson said.

The dam’s reservoir can store up to 13 million gallons of water. Steven Benning, a representative of the 100-member Hutterite community, said the dam was built to provide water for fire suppression for a private K-12 school planned on the property.

Benning said the dam was designed by members of the Hutterite community. He disputed Ecology’s figures on the dam’s size, but said the Hutterite Brethren hired a professional engineer and are working to bring the dam into compliance.

Benning also said he doubted that the dam would pose a risk to downstream property owners.

“We’re stewards of the land,” he said. “In the 40 years we’ve been here, we’ve had two fires, but never a flood.”

The Hutterite dam was one of 95 dams and reservoirs recently flagged by Ecology officials. They used aerial photos to find projects constructed without permits and inspections. Thirty of the dams were deemed “high hazards,” which means that three or more homes are located downstream of the structures.

In Washington, five dams built without permits have failed in recent years, according to Ecology. An orchard owner from the Columbia Basin lost $100,000 when four acres of fruit trees washed away. In Walla Walla County, a dam failure cost another orchard owner $200,000 in lost fruit production.

Permits are required in Washington state for dams with reservoirs large enough to hold at least 3.26 million gallons, or 10 acre-feet, of water. Ecology officials are working to get the word out to farmers, Johnson said. Many of the state’s private dams are built for frost control, or to store waste from large dairy farms.

“In a lot of cases, people are building the dams on their own property and they don’t think they need any permits,” Johnson said. In other situations, the violations are willful, he said.

The Hutterite dam also needs several other permits to comply with local and state laws. Spokane County maps indicate that the dam is built within a wetland area. If the maps are correct, a wetland mitigation plan would be required, said Terry Liberty, neighborhood specialist in the county’s building and planning department.

Operation of the dam also requires a reservoir permit from Ecology, said Kevin Brown, an environmental specialist with Ecology’s water resources program. The permit gives the dam’s operator authority to store waters of the state.

“We still have to make a decision whether there is water available to store,” Brown said. “They can’t store it if it would affect other water users” in the Deep Creek basin.

Contact Becky Kramer at (208) 765-7122, or by email at

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