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.

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.

Bruce Tschantz, professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee who 25 years ago helped establish the first Office of Dam Safety in the then-nascent FEMA, reached back into classical mythology to fetch a phrase - "the sword of Damocles" - to express his concern about the dangers posed by deficient dams perched above developed areas. (Damocles was a courtier at the court of Dionysius I in the 4th century BC. He was so gushing in his praise of the power and happiness of Dionysius that the tyrant, to illustrate the precariousness of rank and power, gave a banquet and had a sword suspended above the head of Damocles by a single hair.)

"We know what the problems are, we know where they are, and we know how to fix them," Dr. Tschantz said in a telephone interview. It's that next step - actually getting the money to fix them - where we're stalled."

Tschantz doesn't point fingers of blame. But it's clear to me that Congress and several presidents, including the current occupant of the White House, share culpability on the national level, and that too many state and local officials have grown weary of trying to find sources of financing to make dams safer.

Jimmy Carter was the last president to display serious and sustained interest in the issue. He had been in office less than a year when, in the early morning darkness of a Sunday in November 1977, a never-inspected dam in the mountains of his home state of Georgia collapsed and sent a wall of water crashing down upon the campus of Toccoa Falls Bible College - a campus he had visited several times.

The Kelly Barnes Dam on Toccoa Creek dated back to 1899, when a rock-and- timber structure was built across a fast-flowing mountain stream to impound water for a small hydroelectric plant. Later, Toccoa Falls Bible Institute chose the valley below as the site for its campus, took over the power plant and, in 1937, decided to construct an earthen embankment over the original dam, eventually raising the structure's height to 42 feet.

Twenty years later, in 1957, the school abandoned the power plant. For the next two decades, the dam was neglected, visited only by an occasional fisherman or hiker. Pine trees grew to maturity on its downstream slope, sending roots deep into the dam's core. Portions of the steep embankment vanished in a landslide, but there were no repairs, even though water seeped almost continuously from the base of the dam. Finally, the weakened 78-year-old dam collapsed during a rainy night in Georgia.

In the valley below, Eldon Elsberry and two friends were on patrol in the campus fire department's Jeep. When the wall of water hit, it overturned the vehicle. "One minute the water [in the creek] was inches deep, and the next I was swimming for my life," Mr. Elsberry said. "I saw the bank and made for it." He turned and saw one of his friends struggling in the water. "I reached for his hand. He went by so fast I couldn't touch him."

Experts later calculated that the water released by the dam's collapse weighed approximately the same as 7,500 locomotives. As the water crashed across the campus, it destroyed a dormitory and crushed a cluster of mobile homes where married students lived.

Later, in the mud and tangled debris, 39 bodies were found. Twenty were children. College officials said they never hired a private consulting engineer because they had no idea it had safety problems. The state of Georgia never inspected the dam because, at the time, there was no state law requiring such inspections. Few other states had dam safety laws then, either. Pennsylvania was one of the exceptions. Its tough law was spurred by memories of the 1889 collapse of South Fork Dam above Johnstown that killed 2,209 people. Yet even with the strong state law requiring regular safety inspections, another 55 people in the same community died in July 1977 after the failure of Laurel Run Dam, just a few miles from where South Fork Dam triggered the disaster 88 years earlier.

While all states except Alabama now have laws or regulations establishing dam safety programs, enforcement is spotty, largely because of the paucity of inspectors. In Texas, for example, there are only six state employees to inspect nearly 7,500 dams. One Texas official noted that with the current staff level "some dams would not be examined for three centuries."

Let's do the math. Two of my teenaged grandchildren live in Texas. If we count 30 years for each generation, that means all the dams in Texas will be inspected by the time my grandchildren's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren ring in a new year in 2306. Reassuring, isn't it?

Gaylord Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize for a series investigating the state of the nation's dams for the Los Angeles Times in 1978.

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