Investigation By Associated Press Reveals More Than 1600 Risky Dams in the U.S.

Spencer Dam in March 2019 after it failed during a flood  Photo: Nebraska Department of Natural Resources via AP

The results of a two-year investigation by the Associated Press (AP) were published this week and the findings were shocking — nearly 1,700 dams located in 44 states and Puerto Rico were rated as “high-hazard” dams that are in poor or unsatisfactory condition.  Experts believe the actual number of risky dams is even higher — some states would not provide the AP with condition ratings for their dams, while other states simply don’t have ratings for their dams.

Why This Matters:  The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates it would take more than $70 billion to repair and modernize the nation’s more than 90,000 dams. And there are many thousands of lives and millions of dollars of property at risk if any of these dams fail.  Can you say Green New Deal?  Sooner or later this nation will have to deal with its aging and crumbling infrastructure – we hope it will be sooner.

How Big Is the Problem?

Dams were built for numerous purposes — they provide flood control, irrigation, water supply, hydropower, recreation or industrial waste storage.

  • On average, the nation’s dams are over a half-century old.
  • They were not built to withstand extreme weather events — intense rainfall and floods — we are experiencing now due to climate change.
  • About 1,000 dams have failed in the last 40 years killing 34 people, but that number could go much higher now.

Former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate told the AP,

“Most people have no clue about the vulnerabilities when they live downstream from these private dams. When they fail, they don’t fail with a warning. They just fail, and suddenly you can find yourself in a situation where you have a wall of water and debris racing toward your house with very little time, if any, to get out.”

Spencer Dam

Last March, the 92-year-old Spencer Dam in Nebraska was “straining to contain the swollen, ice-covered Niobrara River after an unusually intense snow and rainstorm. The workers had tried but failed to force open the dam’s frozen wooden spillway gates.”  One local resident, KennyAngel was killed, when the dam burst “unleashing a wave of water carrying ice chunks the size of cars.” Angel’s home washed away with him in it — his body was never found.  State inspectors had given the Spencer Dam a “fair” rating less than a year earlier, and when it began to fail, Angel only had a five-minute warning to get out.  It was not enough time.

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