Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A dam failure in Texas is a warning about our infrastructure

(In the short video above, we see the Bastrop State Park dam failure that occurred this past Monday, and also learn about the risk posed by Texas dams across the state. Original YouTube link:

Two days ago, a dam at Bastrop State Park in central Texas failed, causing road closures and warnings to nearby residents to seek higher ground. The dam was over one hundred years old and, according to data provided by KVUE Television several months ago, had not been inspected in 10 years ("Dangerous Dams in Texas," KVUE-ABC, February 19, 2015, see the data map at the bottom of the article).

As the Earth continues to warm, and as the number of extreme weather events increase, it's likely that dam failures will increase: "Over the past century, dams made in the West have become more mismatched with their ambient climate" ("World's Dams Unprepared for Climate Change," Scientific American, September 16, 2011).

In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave America's dam infrastructure a "D" letter grade, and reported that "Thousands of our nation’s dams are in need of rehabilitation to meet current design and safety standards." A year earlier, the ASCE had given Texas dams a "D-" letter grade, and highlighted that there was "no state funding to cover the cost of dam repairs, and federal funding is very limited."

Far from being concerned about their 2012 "D-" letter grade, "In 2013, the [Republican] state legislature decided to ease regulations on rural property owners, so more than 3,000 dams are exempt from inspection," a decision that "doesn't sit well" with homeowners who live near the private dams. The problem, of course, is money. While billionaires keep adding billions to their personal fortunes, and while conservative politicians continue to protect the super-wealthy from increased taxation, rural homeowners in Texas don't have the money to repair the dams on their property and the state has "no money for repairs. The state hasn't funded repairs in five years." ("Hundreds of Texas dams at risk of failure," WFAA-ABC, May 13, 2015).

During the New Deal, policymakers invested large amounts of money in dam construction and repair. For example, the PWA helped fund large dams, and the WPA and CCC built or repaired smaller to mid-sized dams (and many of these were on private property). As long as states or local communities were willing to pitch in some money--sometimes as little as 12-20% of the cost of the project--the federal government would frequently kick in the rest. Some of the dam work by New Deal agencies was less-than-perfect, but then, so was the technology of the time. In many instances, however, the dams are still in operation today and have provided solid service for three-quarters of a century.

(WPA workers constructing the Johnson's Pond Dam in Salisbury, Maryland, in July of 1936. The dam is still operating today and has provided eight decades of boating and fishing opportunities, "producing quality bass, bluegill and chain pickerel." Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

If we wanted to, we could create a new public works program, like the WPA, to repair (and in some cases dismantle) our dams. Such a program would greatly benefit people who have dams on their property, and it would also benefit people who are threatened by these dams. Unfortunately, many of our political leaders today are so busy pampering the super-wealthy, and so obsessed with insulting the non-wealthy, that they don't have much time for infrastructure concerns.

Instead of action, we have perpetual cynicism towards action. Right-wing politicians, think tanks, media organizations, and talking heads--and the billionaires who fund them--have been very successful in convincing tens of millions of Americans that government is always bad. And that's unfortunate, because, as President Ronald Reagan said, "The WPA was one of the most productive elements of FDR's alphabet soup of agencies because it put people to work building roads, bridges, and other gave men and women a chance to make some money along with the satisfaction of knowing they earned it" (Ronald Reagan: An American Life, by Ronald Reagan, New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1990, p. 69 of 2011 paperback edition).


  1. Thank you for this post and hope you can circulate it more widely so that it gets read and discussed. This week many Texans died avoidable deaths. Austin was flooded with the help of the Bastrop Dam collapse. Citizens of Hays County and in Wimberley, along the Blanco, did vocalize concerns about climate science being ignored locally but their worries were either dismissed or ignored. I spent a year meeting wonderful Texan CCC men, all in their late 80's. They knew about dangerous conditions across the state 21st Century and they openly advocated in there meetings for a re-establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Most of them are gone now but I hear their voices right now telling us that we are too late.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It's truly sad that our nation can't muster the willpower to create new public work programs, considering our infrastructure is crumbling away.

  2. If you haven't noticed, doing anything along the lines of fixing up any of these water resources, and you get slapped with lawsuits by Billionaire financed environmental groups that delay construction times and make the cost of doing so skyrocket, not to mention the outright Luddite groups that want to tear everything down and make us go back to a state of primitive hunter and gathering existence.

    1. I have noticed that no matter what policy is pursued, there are groups that will fight it. For example, with energy, there are groups that don't like coal because it pollutes, groups that don't like hydroelectric because of its potential interference with fish migration, groups that don't like windmills because it alters the beauty of the natural landscape, groups that don't like nuclear power because of its potential for disaster, and so on. Well, at some point, we DO have to have energy.