Sprat Issue 38 – Crumbling Dams
By James Donahue
In his list of concerns, Jack Sprat maintains that more than 1,200 dams across America
are in need of repair. Research shows that Mr. Sprat is correct. There are an estimated 80,000 dams in existence with more
than 2,000 of them near population centers in need of repair according to the Association of State Dam Safety.
The problem is intensifying with each passing year. The number of dams determined to
be unsafe rose from 3,500 in 2005 to 4,095 by 2007. The number has obviously gone even higher since 2007.
While some of the most critical dams have been marked for repair, the problem is part
of a nation-wide disintegration of a total infrastructure that is being all but ignored by the Republican-led Washington legislators
who are hell-bent to block efforts by President Barack Obama to direct federal dollars for infrastructure repair.
Larry Roth, deputy executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers said
the nation's aging and cracking dams is a problem that is growing more serious with each passing year. Not only this, but
Roth warned that because of a lack of money to pay for qualified safety inspections, "the policing of maintenance and filing
of inspection records is relatively haphazard."
Some estimate that it will take about $16 billion over 12 years to repair the "high-hazard"
dams. The total estimated cost of rehabilitating all of the endangered deams tops $51 billion.
That kind of money calls for federal financial help, but not all dams in the United
States are the work of the federal government. Some deams are state owned and maintained, and some may have even been constructed
by private property owners and organizations for agricultural or hydro-electric generating purposes. Meeting the cost of maintaining
these dams can be overwhelming during current hard economic times.
To make the problem even more complex, in some cases the business that built some of
the 75 to 90-year-old dams are long gone. And without an owner of record, how can it be determined who should pay for the
State governments, which are losing federal assistance and consequently being forced
to take on the additional financial cost of running schools, paying for road maintenance and schools, are unable to pay for
rebuilding dams on their own. They can't afford to get rid of them either.
As the nation's population has grown, more and more homes and entire towns have been
constructed in the shadow of some of the larger dams. This means that more and more people are living in risky areas. When
dams fail, it often means unexpected disaster for everyone in the path of the rushing cascade of water that results.
The Obama federal stimulous program, which was slashed by the Republican controlled
House and Senate, did not direct money for extensive dam maintenance. The Recovery Act thus is doing almost nothing to ease
this threat of looming disasters waiting to happen.
As climate change bring more flooded rivers and cause overflowing reservoirs, the pressure
on the old dams is growing. There has also been the new threat of earthquakes occurring in new and unexpected places.
Mr. Sprat is correct when he regards America's crumbling dams a national concern.