One solution to America’s dam-safety problem: Remove them

Why We Wrote This

When something has outlived its usefulness, sometimes the best solution is to simply take it out. That’s what many U.S. officials are learning when faced with a deteriorating infrastructure of dams and reservoirs.

Jake May/The Flint Journal, MLive.com/AP
Sunny Clark (center), her husband, Clint, and their 8-year-old son, Caron, walk along what was once the bottom of Wixom Lake on May 20, 2020, in Edenville Township, north of Midland, Michigan. After two days of heavy rain, the Edenville Dam failed and flood waters rushed south, ravaging the landscape in its path.

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In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s dams a “D” in its infrastructure report card. Among these are more than 15,000 dams whose failure would threaten lives.

Jim Sperling knows this all too well. On May 19, Michigan’s Edenville Dam collapsed, sending 21.5 billion gallons of water down the Tittabawassee River in less than two hours. Mr. Sperling, whose home was less than a mile downstream from the dam, was forced to flee as the muddy flood waters swept away his boat and inundated his home.

“It was one big wave,” he says. “A massive wave.”

An increasingly popular solution to protecting public safety and restoring rivers to their natural state is dam removal. Last year, 90 dams were taken out in 26 states. That’s a small percentage of the country’s more than 90,000 dams, but dam owners are increasingly choosing removal as an alternative to upgrade and maintenance, especially for dams that have outlived their usefulness.

“We’ve seen a lot more [removals],” says Mark Ogden, a technical expert at the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. “Dam owners are more aware of their liability and the potential cost of repairs.”

Jim Sperling was less than a mile downstream when the dam gave way. First came a siren’s wail, then the water, rising quickly as he fled with his wife, Marge. It swept away their pontoon boat, destroyed a shed, and filled their house, all in a muddy debris-filled surge that, in Mr. Sperling’s words, “ripped out everything” – trees, bridges, docks, even houses.

“It was one big wave,” Mr. Sperling says. “A massive wave.”

The collapse of Michigan’s Edenville Dam May 19 sent 21.5 billion gallons of water down the Tittabawassee River in less than two hours. The flood overwhelmed the Sanford Dam downstream and forced the evacuation of 10,000 people in three counties. It also left communities flooded, 2,500 houses damaged or destroyed, and, at Edenville, a shallow, sandy basin where a lake once lay.

The dam’s failure, coming after more than two days of record rainfall, also drew new attention to the poor condition of dams, not just in Michigan but across the country. The American Society of Civil Engineers, which periodically rates the condition of U.S. infrastructure, gave dams a “D” in its last report, and among them are more than 15,000 whose failure would threaten lives. Indeed, federal authorities two years before its collapse had deemed the Edenville Dam, an earthen berm built for hydropower in 1924, inadequate to handle heavy rains and in need of upgrade. Little had been done.

“We see the problem getting worse and worse,” says Larry Larson, adviser to the Association of State Floodplain Managers, a nonprofit that he co-founded. “The dams are getting older, we’re seeing more intense rainfall events, and people are building more in failure areas.”

Less remarked upon was an option for ailing dams that’s quietly gaining acceptance across the country: removal. Last year, 90 dams were taken out in 26 states, the latest in a growing movement aimed at improving public safety and restoring rivers to their natural state. That’s a small percentage of the country’s more than 90,000 dams, but dam owners are increasingly choosing removal as an alternative to upgrade and maintenance, especially for dams that have outlived their usefulness.

“We’ve seen a lot more,” says Mark Ogden, a technical expert at the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. “Dam owners are more aware of their liability and the potential cost of repairs.”

A wave of removals

More than 1,700 dams have been taken out in the U.S. since 1912, according to American Rivers, an environmental organization that has done more than any other to promote and facilitate dam removal. Most were removed after the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Augusta, Maine, was taken out in 1999, marking the beginning of the modern removal effort. Last year, dams were removed in 26 states, the largest number of states that has ever had dams removed in a single year. 

Robert F. Bukaty/AP/File
Fishermen cast into the Kennebec River below the Edwards Dam in Augusta, Maine, in July 1997. Government leaders and conservationists are gathering June 30, 2009, at a park along the Kennebec River in Augusta to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the breaching of the 24-foot-high, 917-foot-wide dam.

“You see a lot of variation state by state,” says Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy, director of river restoration for American Rivers. “A lot of states are fairly new to dam removal. A lot of states have been doing it a long time.”

Most dams removed are small. A typical example is the Burton Lake Dam in Burton, Ohio. In 2014, heavy late-winter rains flooded the ice and sent water pouring over the dam. No one was hurt, but the combination of flooding and the threat to houses downstream brought the dam to the attention of state and local authorities.

“We knew we needed to do something with it,” says Gerry Morgan, a Geauga County official. A study concluded that current standards required the dam to be raised and an emergency spillway constructed. The work would have cost an estimated $3.5 million.

The county looked in vain for help. “There were a lot of people that were more likely to give money to remove it than to upgrade it,” Mr. Morgan says. 

Local homeowners blamed the county for neglecting the dam over the years; others worried that the loss of the impoundment, a shallow lake of about 30 acres, would hurt their property values. But they declined to pay for the upgrades themselves. Finally, in 2019 the county spent $100,000, Mr. Morgan says, to have a contractor with heavy equipment dig a notch in the dam and spread the dirt nearby. The old lake is now a wetland.

Restore or remove?

Some removals happen more quickly. In Pennsylvania, Ms. Hollingsworth-Segedy has helped to dismantle some 125 dams over a dozen years. She recalls many of them in vivid detail, including a dam she and colleagues visited one March day in 2009 on Snare Run, a mountain creek that had been dammed to supply water to a local town. When they reached the dam they saw what looked like a frozen waterfall. They soon figured out that the water wasn’t running over the dam, but seeping through it. 

“It got really quiet,” she recalls. “You could hear tink, tink, tink. We realized those were rocks falling out of the dam.”

The dam was 22 feet high, and there were houses downstream. It took the state less than a week, she says, to take it out.

Experts say several factors combine to imperil U.S. dams. One is age: the average dam is 57 years old. Often, too, new development downstream has made failure far more dangerous than when the dams were built. Finally, climate change is producing more frequent and intense rainstorms of the kind that doomed the Edenville Dam.

“I think the likelihood that we see the events that cause dams to fail is increasing,” says Mr. Ogden. “It’s clear we need to invest in the upgrade and repair of dams – or removal.” 

A powerful argument in favor of removal is money. Taking a dam out costs far less than fixing it up. Plus, dam owners who agree to removal can sometimes get financial help in the name of habitat improvement. 

Otherwise, the cost is high. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that rehabilitating all the non-federal dams in the U.S. – most dams are privately owned – would cost more than $65 billion. Last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency started a grant program for substandard dams, but it hands out just $10 million a year. “It’s something but not much compared to the need,” says Mr. Ogden.

In Michigan, Jim Sperling and many others are focused on rebuilding their homes, and their lives. There’s been little talk of removing the Edenville Dam but much about rebuilding that, too. Thousands of people own property around the impoundment and three others in the region, and they support reconstruction and rehabilitation. 

If it happens, it’s likely to take many years. The owner of the dams, Boyce Hydro, has filed for bankruptcy, and lawsuits abound. An organization of property owners proposes that the local counties take ownership of the dams and that they, the property owners, shoulder the cost of rebuilding. That’s estimated to be as much as $400 million, most of it for the Edenville Dam.

“I don’t know how they can raise that,” Mr. Sperling says, raising the biggest question hanging over this or any old dam’s future. “If they put it on taxpayers, a lot of people are going to be unhappy.”

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