CHIPLEY – As residents of the southern portion of Washington County continue to deal with historic water levels, some are saying the state ignored a key opportunity to abate the problem of excessive flooding, an issue currently affecting more than a hundred property owners in the area.
While most residents agree there are several reasons for the lack of adequate drainage in southern Washington County, Radcliff Circle homeowner Terry Smith says he brought one vital factor to the attention of local, state, and federal officials nearly three years ago: a man-made dam placed in the area of Spikes Road in northern Bay County that he says is preventing water flow to downstream areas, hindering the natural ecosystem.
“The dam was put in place sometime in the 80s with no permit, nothing,” said Smith. “The dam is located at the head waters of Cedar Creek and is reinforced with crushed concrete. There’s anywhere between 8 and 10 feet of water that’s not supposed to be there, water that should naturally be making its way into the Gulf of Mexico. Our water here is a terminal pond system, which means the water comes in, goes out through the bottom through springs, into the aquifer, and eventually, out to the Gulf. They’re not draining because the dam is restricting 8 to 10 feet of water.”
Smith says that while Northwest Florida Water Management District (NWFWMD) looked into the matter in 2019, no action has been taken.
“Water management came in, and they allowed [the dam] to stay there, knowing good and well that it needs to flow,” he said. “Cedar Creek wouldn’t be as wide and deep as it is unless the water was meant to flow there. They need to put it back to nature.”
According to public records, NWFWMD conducted an investigation into a “possible obstruction” in the Southport portion of Cedar Creek in March 2019.
“The dam was located, and pictures taken,” reads the inspection report. “No structures (pipes or culverts) were noted, but a channel was found conveying water through the dam from the north to the south with no visible obstructions.”
Smith noted that Florida statute prohibits the obstruction of waterways maintained by any district and says he doesn’t understand why the structure wasn’t removed when it was located.
“It is an illegal dam,” he said. “You don’t build something like that without ripple effects. Now, it’s too late to simply take it down. If water management does take action, they will have to do a slow release.”
Washington County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tray Hawkins says he only recently became aware of the dam’s existence and possible role in the flooding, but he wants to assure residents that the county and NWFWMD are revisiting the dam issue, as well as looking at other mitigation efforts.
“Instead of going back to [past administration] that hasn’t handled things properly, we need to work together to resolve this issue for the good of the residents,” said Hawkins. “I want to reassure everyone that the current administration of water management is doing everything possible to make sure that we can make these constituents whole again.”
Hawkins and other Washington County officials held a local mitigation strategy meeting on Wednesday to assist residents in applying for federal buyout programs and also met with representatives from NWFWMD.
As a result of that meeting, Hawkins states the agency has agreed to work with Bay County Public Works officials to determine whether the dam is a factor, as well as the proper way to proceed if it is.
Additionally, NWFWMD is hoping to boost water absorption by pausing timber harvesting in the area, as well as by spreading wood chips that are byproduct of the deforestation along “Dog 24,” a hunting trail the agency opened up for public use so that residents could access their homes.
“Water management has opened the playbook and is being great,” said Hawkins. “They made a commitment to provide us with all the access and equipment we need to help our residents.”
Smith, who owns 30 acres with a barn and a home on Radcliff Circle, says while he is glad some progress is being made, it is too late for many residents.
Smith and his family were using a canoe to access their home until they moved in October after water encroached into the home and left the first floor with more than 2 inches of standing water. He says the perpetual flooding has forced the family to sell livestock and move, and he is skeptical about finding help through insurance or the county buyout plans.
“We went from our big house that I spent my life building to a small 1988 trailer while we wait for something to be done,” he said. “Tell us why we’re being flooded out and why we’re losing our livelihood. Insurance companies are turning our neighbors down left and right. The only chance we have is to give our property away to the government. If water management would have removed the dam two and a half years ago, it would have allowed the water to go down enough in the springs that my house wouldn’t be underwater. That was our investment for the future. I built our house to withstand hurricanes. I can’t do anything about a man-made disasters.”
“It’s a dance,” he said, “and they’re trying not to step on each other’s toes. But in the process of this dance, the rest of us, the property owners, are getting trampled. When you get to the point that every time it rains, your wife cries, it’s tough. This isn’t water management; this is water mismanagement.”