The enormous US dam problem no one is talking about
While Congress quickly approved $3 billion to restore New Orleans' levees, a bill to help states repair aging dams has languished for a year.
The landscape of America, at last count, is dotted with 79,272 large dams. Most of them safely deliver bountiful benefits - trillions of gallons of water for drinking, irrigation, and industrial use, plus flood control, recreation, hydroelectric power, and navigation.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
That's the good news.
Here, in my opinion, is the bad news: Disaster lurks in thousands of those dams.
At least 3,500 of America's big dams are unsafe, according to inspection reports filed away in obscure nooks and crannies of government offices across the country. Thousands more dams also are unsafe, the American Society of Civil Engineers concluded this year, but no one knows for certain how many because few states have the funds for even cursory safety inspections.
Thus, every moment of every day, unsafe dams form a vast reservoir of danger throughout America. That's not an overstatement. I'm not a professional engineer, but I've spent nearly two-thirds of my 45-year career in journalism studying unsafe dams. I've done on-the-scene reporting on dam failures that killed 175 people and caused billions of dollars in property damage. I've interviewed scores of victims, dozens of state and federal engineers, inspectors, and officials, and examined records on hundreds of dams.
In my view, the cumulative hazard posed by unsafe dams is huge, but it remains largely unexplored by the media. When a dam fails - and records suggest dozens do each year - the events usually are viewed as local, transitory incidents rather than a symbol of a national problem.
Hurricane Katrina underscored the peril of depending on man-made structures for protection against disaster. Failure of the New Orleans' levee system during the storm this year contributed to prolonged flooding and 1,300 deaths.
Months later, as scenes of misery and dislocation lingered in the public mind, President Bush urgently asked Congress to approve $3 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers to begin rebuilding New Orleans' battered levees. The House of Representatives included that amount in a $29 billion hurricane recovery assistance package it passed three days later.
In concept and construction, levees are close cousins of dams. But while politicians flocked to support repair of New Orleans' levees, they've virtually ignored a proposed Dam Rehabilitation and Repair Act which has languished for nearly a year in a House subcommittee. The proposal would authorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to disperse $350 million over four years to help states repair unsafe dams. Chances of Congress enacting such a repair program anytime soon are slim.
The $350 million program would be a down payment of less than 10 percent toward the estimated $36.2 billion total cost of repairing America's unsafe dams. It also is approximately one-eighth of the amount the president is seeking for repair of the New Orleans' levees.
This is not to suggest that the New Orleans' levees go unrepaired. But from New England to Hawaii more and more aging dams are experiencing problems, with little public awareness. A few large and small examples:
• Taunton, Mass., got national attention in October when a 173-year-old, 12-foot-tall wooden dam above its business district began to buckle. Stores and schools were closed for a week and townspeople headed for higher ground. The crisis eased when the water level behind the dam was lowered. The federal government is now paying 75 percent of the $189,410 cost of tearing down Whittenton Mills Dam and replacing it with a new one.
• In the placid Schoharie River Valley of upstate New York, a volunteer group calling itself Dam Concerned Citizens was formed last month to press for emergency repairs to 182-foot-tall Gilboa Dam, built 80 years ago to supply drinking water to New York City. The dam has been leaking for years. Now citizens have established their own website which distributes emergency notification plans and publicizes preselected evacuation routes for use should the dam fail (www.gilboadaminfo.com).
• Residents of Denver, Colo., population 2 million plus, were warned last month by the Corps of Engineers that serious safety problems have been detected at Cherry Creek Dam, a 141-foot-tall earthen structure. The dam was built 55 years ago on what was then windswept pastureland 10 miles south of Denver. Now the dam looms above Interstate 225, a cluster of office parks and swank homes, a nationally known golf course, and several schools.