Tuesday, June 9, 2015

More dam failures are more warnings about our infrastructure

(Built as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority project, the Hiwassee Dam in North Carolina still provides hydroelectric power today. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Two Wednesdays ago (May 27), I highlighted a story about a dam failure in Texas ("A dam failure in Texas is a warning about our infrastructure"). On that same day, the Gun Lake Dam in Michigan failed. Thankfully, "Quick action by workers...prevented a catastrophic flood that could have destroyed homes and farms and turned part of Gun Lake into an unappealing swamp." The dam was built sometime between 1905 and 1940. ("Workers respond to leak in dam that threatened Gun Lake neighborhood," MLive, June 8, 2015)

Then, on Sunday, May 31st, in Cowetta County, Georgia, a 50-year-old dam failed and the lake it held drained away - completely. Unfortunately, "Because the lake sits on private property, there isn’t much the county can do other than advise residents how to go about rebuilding the dam, a potentially costly task" ("Lake disappears after thunderstorms in Cowetta County," WSB-TV 2, June 3, 2015).

(The Civilian Conservation Corps built the Herrington Manor State Park dam, in western Maryland (the dam can be seen in the photo above, to the right), and the dam has provided decades of recreational opportunities for visitors to the park (fishing, boating, swimming). I have fond memories of fishing with my father and brother on the lake, catching several bluegill and a rainbow trout. Photo by Brent McKee.)

In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave America's dams a letter grade of "D", noting "The average age of the 84,000 dams in the country is 52 years old. The nation’s dams are aging and the number of high-hazard dams is on the rise...The number of deficient dams is estimated at more than 4,000, which includes 2,000 deficient high-hazard dams."

Despite the ACSE's warning, Republicans in Congress have repeatedly blocked infrastructure improvement bills (see, e.g., my blog posts "Senior Republican on Infrastructure: 'The problem...is really more Republicans than Democrats'" and "As its infrastructure crumbles, West Virginia embraces anti-infrastructure Republicans").

A significant part of the problem is that a lot of dams are on private property and many of the landowners can't afford to repair or improve them. Making matters worse, many governments--having prioritized tax-cuts-for-the-wealthy over infrastructure work--can't afford to fix them either (see, e.g., my earlier blog post about the dam failure in Texas). And this is exactly the kind of problem where a new WPA could help because, back in the 1930s and early 1940s, the WPA worked on private property dams (see, e.g., Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, p. 53). And, with today's technology, we could do it even better.

Other New Deal work involving dams included: funding for large dams through the Public Works Administration; dams built in conjunction with the Tennessee Valley Authority; and dams built in public parks & forests by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Today, many New Deal dams are still providing hydroelectric power, irrigation, flood control, erosion control, recreation opportunities, and drinking water for countless millions of Americans. And while there is certainly an argument to be made for the elimination of some dams (which a new WPA could do as well), many New Deal dams have provided useful service for three-quarters of a century.

(WPA workers building the Johnson's Pond Dam in Salisbury, Maryland, 1936-1937. The dam still operates today.)

How many dam failures, potholes, and water main breaks (we have about a quarter of a million of those per year) is it going to take before America wakes up and says, "Y'know, the strength of our infrastructure is probably more important than the tax breaks, the multiple yachts, the 24-karat gold bathtubs, and the socially-disconnected living compounds of millionaires & billionaires"?

(Also, see "World's dams unprepared for climate change conditions," Scientific American, September 16, 2011, and "Extreme rainfall becoming more common, new analysis finds," Huffington Post, May 28, 2015.) 

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