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Red Boiling Springs Watershed Dams Stand Up to the Test

On May 1-2, 2010 middle Tennessee experienced what has been called a 1,000 year flood event resulting in 21 deaths and causing more than 1.5 billion dollars of property damage. An average of 14 to 15 inches of rain fell in a two day period with some areas receiving as much 19.4 inches of rain. Amazingly the impact of this 1,000 year flood on the residents of Red Boiling Springs was nothing like the 1969 100-year flood.

“In 1969, flood waters were close to 8 feet deep in a church in downtown Red Boiling Springs,” said Chad Owens, City of Red Boiling Springs employee. “Because of the watershed dams working like they should water didn’t even get in the church in the 2010. I’d hate to see what this flood would have done to Red Boiling Springs if we hadn’t had these watershed structures.”

On the morning of June 23, 1969, Ray Bilbrey woke to the sound of rain on the tin roof of his home in Red Boiling Springs, a small resort town in a scenic but steep, narrow valley along the banks of Salt Lick Creek. Bilbrey, a City Councilman and member of the Rescue Squad at that time remembers, “I woke up around daylight and stepped out of bed into a foot of water in my house. I immediately got my wife and children out of the house to a safe location and then came back and began getting the vehicles out. It wasn’t drops of water; it was more like streams of water. Before it was over we had 4-1/2 feet of water in the house; the water was so deep our refrigerator floated and turned over.”

Red Boiling Springs received approximately 8 inches of rain in a 5 hour period that morning. Rescue operations began immediately. “We tied a rope to a road grader and then tied it to ourselves. We went from house to house helping people get to safety,” Bilbrey said. “Two children were killed in that morning’s flood. I never want to go through flooding like that again.”

At least 35 homes and 15 businesses were either destroyed or heavily damaged. The city was without drinking water for weeks. There was widespread damage along almost every stream. Cattle, farm equipment, and vehicles were washed away. Crops were either destroyed or received extensive damage.

Larry Tucker owned a car lot in Red Boiling Springs in 1969. “Cars were piled on top of each other,” Tucker said. “I lost close to thirty cars in that flood.” Tucker, who served as Mayor of Red Boiling Springs in 1976, assisted with acquiring land easements to allow for construction of the PL-566 watershed dams.

“I recall the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) working with us on the watershed dams,” said Bilbrey, who also served as Mayor. “They stayed over here for a year or longer I guess. Building the watershed dams was the best thing that ever happened to Red Boiling Springs. Any city that has an opportunity to get protection like we were able to get should take advantage of it.”

Three watershed structures were completed in 1978, 1980 and 1995 to prevent flooding with funding through the USDA-NRCS Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program (PL-566). According to Jeff Young, NRCS District Conservationist, the watershed structures were built for a 50-year lifespan. Today all of the watershed dams appear to be structurally sound.

The City of Red Boiling Springs serves as the local sponsoring organization and is responsible for maintenance of the dams which are inspected annually. “I believe we would have had significant flooding this year if we had not had the watershed dams,” stated Chad Owens.

Views of the damage caused by the 1969 flood that did extensive damage to Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee.

Views of the PL-566 dams that protect Red Boiling Springs today.