The dangers of dams

You might have overlooked National Dam Safety Awareness Day (that was May 31st), so consider this: As long as there have been dams there have been dam failures – recently two in Michigan that sent 10,000 people packing, and, memorably, the Johnstown flood of 1889 when more than 2,200 Pennsylvanians died in the worst dam collapse in American history.

 There are tens of thousands of dams in the United States that could do a significant number were they to fail. Confirming the possibility, most state governments run some form of dam safety program, and Stanford University maintains a running report on dam failures.

Confirming the need for such actions, last year, the Associated Press came out with an extensive report in which it said that at least 1,680 dams in the country were at risk.

 There are several explanations for this situation, one being that not all dams – whether built for flood control, hydropower, irrigation, water supply, recreation or industrial waste storage – are adequately maintained. Another reason of recent vintage: increasingly drenching rainstorms that are attributed to climate instability.

 Government apparently acknowledges the resulting risks, but not always with much follow-through. The New York Times recently reported that one federal dam rehabilitation program that aimed to allocate $445 million for a decade starting in 2017 didn’t receive a dime for the first two years; Congress chipped in  a comparative pittance of $10 million last year.

Clearly that’s not responsible. Nor is it responsible for dam owners – whether public or private – to keep their emergency plans gathering dust on the shelf, never updated, nor to have any emergency plans at all.

 There’s a lot on the nation’s shoulders at the moment: the pandemic, demonstrations against police brutality, the economy, elections. It’s hard to imagine having enough time and energy and resources to improve the performance on dam safety. Well, tough.  There’s also increasingly intense rain storms. Disasters are waiting to happen, and no one can say we haven’t been warned.


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