After two Michigan dams collapsed in May – inundating homes, businesses, and threatening a chemical plant and a Superfund site – a Columbia University research team warned the failures are a preview of coming disasters. A lot of them.
“Two dams down, a few thousand more to go,” Upmanu Lall and Paulina Concha Larrauri wrote in a New York Times op-ed days after the disaster.
There are more than 90,000 dams in the United States, many of which are old, poorly maintained, and vulnerable to large floods and earthquakes that weren’t taken into account when they were built decades ago. Some 15,600 are classified as high-hazard-potential dams, meaning people will probably be killed if the structure fails. And more than 2,300 of these high-risk dams are in poor or unsatisfactory condition.
States reported 250 dam failures and 539 “incidents” where dams were at risk of failing between January 2010 and April 2020, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO). That includes the 2015 collapse of the Semmes Lake Dam at Fort Jackson, S.C., that contributed to two deaths and caused millions of dollars in damage. In 2019, Vietnam War veteran Kenny Angel was swept away after Spencer Dam in Nebraska was breached. His body has never been recovered. Michigan’s dual dam failure was triggered by floodwaters overwhelming the Edenville Dam near Midland, sending a surge downstream that then took out Sanford Dam. The list goes on.
“We have a national infrastructure crisis,” Lall says. It’s a matter of time until there’s a catastrophic dam collapse that kills people and damages important downstream infrastructure such as bridges, highways, hospitals and water treatment plants. The bottom line, Lall and other experts say, is that the nation needs to provide more money to repair essential dams – and remove those that are no longer economically viable.
“The biggest thing is, if you can’t maintain it, you have to drain it,” says Charles Karpowicz, a dam safety engineer who worked for the National Park Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.
D-graded Dams have long powered U.S. factories, stored irrigation and drinking water, and made barge transportation possible on the Mississippi and other rivers. The Tennessee Valley Authority launched an ambitious
dam-building program in the South in the 1930s to promote economic development. The dam-building spree in the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River basin provided construction jobs during the Depression and electricity for the aluminum smelters and nuclear reactors that helped win World War II.
Cities such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas owe much of their existence to dam systems that capture and divert water hundreds of miles. Denver alone depends on approximately two dozen dams, says Del Shannon, senior vice president of Schnabel Engineering and vice president of the U.S. Society on Dams. But the nation isn’t taking care of these vital structures. “We put them in the ground and forget about them,” Shannon says. “And they are crumbling.”
The American Society of Civil Engineers has consistently given dams a “D” since issuing its first Infrastructure Report Card in 1998. The only change: the number of problem dams and the cost of fixing them has skyrocketed. Today, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates it needs $19.6 billion to address its deficient dams. At the current investment rate, these repairs would take more than 50 years to complete, the Corps confirms. As sobering: the Corps is responsible for less than 1 percent of the nation’s dams. The cost of rehabilitating all of the known dam problems in the United States could exceed $80 billion.
Public and private hydropower dams, including the pair that failed in Michigan, are licensed by the federal government. Every state except Alabama also has its own dam safety program. California’s is considered one of the best. Yet dam experts were surprised by the 2017 spillway failure at the Oroville Dam, which at 770 feet is the nation’s tallest dam. Nearly 200,000 people were evacuated and the federal government paid more than $1 billion for emergency repairs for something Lall says was preventable. An independent investigation of the Oroville incident concluded that the spillway defects – including problems with the concrete and the underlying bedrock – were known almost as soon as the dam was completed in 1968 and accepted as an issue that merely required ongoing repairs.
Meanwhile, there is increasing development downstream from dams. That means structures that were built in the middle of nowhere – and therefore considered low-risk – have since become high-hazard-potential dams.
More than half the nation’s dams are privately owned. The owners, which include municipalities and public utilities, are responsible for safety and upkeep. That’s a big challenge because a private entity – say, the homeowners association for a lakeside development – may not make money from the dam associated with the project, says Mark Ogden, a civil engineer with ASDSO.
It can also be difficult to get owners to do the necessary work on dams designed with a revenue stream in mind, Ogden says. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission revoked Boyce Hydro’s license to operate the Edenville Dam in September 2018 after years of unsuccessfully trying to get the owner to upgrade its dams.
After the dams collapsed, the principal owner filed for bankruptcy, blaming regulators for the problems, according to the news website Michigan Live. But others think dam regulations were too lax. “From what I know, regulators and politicians are too lenient on dam owners,” Karpowicz says. “There are thousands of unsafe dams that should be removed because the owners have not repaired them in a timely fashion.”
Removal More and more unprofitable or outdated dams are being removed, says Boise-based hydropower economist Tony Jones, who worked for two Republican Idaho governors and the Idaho Public Utilities Commission. “Dams are like any tool. They get old. And when a private utility decides to get rid of an asset such as a dam, it’s a sign something is truly wrong with it.”
More than 1,700 U.S. dams have been taken out since 1912, most in the past 30 years, according to the nonprofit American Rivers. The world’s largest project involved removing the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams in Olympic National Park in 2011 and 2014, respectively. Elsewhere, PacifiCorp has been removing four of its Klamath River dams in southern Oregon and northern California. In recent years, the company has taken out dams on Oregon’s Sandy and Hood rivers as well as the White Salmon River in Washington state. In many cases, dam owners conclude it’s less expensive to remove the dam than add fish ladders and make other changes required to relicense the facilities.
In fact, fish issues and economics fuel one of the most high-profile dam controversies in the western United States. Steve Pettit has fought for removal of the four Lower Snake River dams in eastern Washington and northern Idaho since soon after he returned from a 13-month tour as a helicopter gunship pilot in Vietnam and enrolled in graduate school at the University of Idaho. He continued that battle during his 32-year career as a fisheries biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
The dams, opposed by the Eisenhower administration, were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s by the Corps of Engineers with the promise of turning Lewiston, Idaho, into a thriving inland seaport 465 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
“I read the transcripts from the congressional hearings in the ’40s and ’50s,” Pettit says. “Proponents said Lewiston would become the size of Seattle. Fishery experts testified that if all four dams were completed, salmon and steelhead would be extinct within 40 to 50 years.”
The economic boom faded after dam construction was completed, and Lewiston has the lowest economic growth rate of any city in Idaho since the 1970s, Jones says. Wild salmon and steelhead are on the cusp of extinction because of the toll dams take on the fish, particularly young smolts migrating to the ocean where they spend up to five years before returning to the place they were born to spawn.
“The only chance these fish have is for the four Lower Snake River dams to come out,” Pettit says. Wild salmon returned to the Elwha River six months after the dams were removed, he adds, and have returned to other Pacific Northwest rivers after dams were removed.
Before the 20th-century dam-building spree began, the Columbia-Snake system produced 16 million to 20 million chinook, coho, sockeye and chum salmon – more than any other watershed in the world. The Snake River, largest tributary to the Columbia River, produced nearly half of those fish. Chinook salmon swam all the way to northeastern Nevada, where they fed miners trying to strike the mother lode during the 1800s. There were even two salmon canneries in Weiser, Idaho, near Boise, Jones says.
Now, “the wild runs are circling the toilet bowl of extinction,” Pettit says. “Some are down to a hundred fish. Wild sockeye is a museum piece.”
Fishing guides and communities along the Snake and Clearwater rivers are struggling. “A study 15 years ago showed bringing salmon and steelhead back to Idaho is worth $300 million a year,” Pettit says. “It’s a great loss to the economy of these small river towns.”
Third-generation fishing guide Toby Wyatt of Clarkston, Wash., says at some point he expects he’ll have to find a new line of work as wild salmon and steelhead disappear. And while he supports dam removal and other changes to help wild fish, he also says the region’s hydro complex has become part of the landscape and an
important source of jobs.
Pettit’s other concern: an enormous amount of silt that was carried downriver before the Lower Granite Dam was built now settles at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater near Lewiston, raising the river level and increasing the odds that a major flood would overtop levees and inundate the city. “If we had a flood like we had in 1974 – or larger – there would be 3 feet of water in downtown,” Pettit says.
The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which markets electricity from the Northwest’s federal hydropower dams and is responsible for covering the costs of the turbines and other power infrastructure, has spent $16 billion unsuccessfully attempting to restore wild salmon and steelhead and strongly opposes dam removal. But Jones says the economic case for taking out the Lower Snake River dams is overwhelming. The amount of wheat and wood products shipped by river barge from Lewiston to the West Coast has declined, and half of the power generated by the four lower Snake dams is produced from March to June when it’s not needed for winter heating or summer air conditioning.
The four dams are among the most expensive to operate in the BPA system, and three of the four will need turbine replacements in the coming years that could cost $1 billion, Jones says. “If the four Lower Snake River dams were run by a private company, they would get a backhoe up there today and tear them down. Every minute you keep them is a hole in your balance sheet.”
He adds, “Why would you let salmon go extinct for dams that aren’t competitive even without the fish recovery cost?”
BPA is the most heavily leveraged utility in the country. Its hydropower rates can’t compete with less expensive solar and wind power, Jones says. And when their power contracts expire in 2028, many may not reup with BPA, forcing the agency to raise its rates and potentially lose more customers.
BPA says these assertions are inaccurate. The Lower Snake River dams are profitable and among BPA’s lowest-cost power sources, says Doug Johnson, senior BPA spokesman. And although the dams’ turbines are nearing the end of their design life, BPA does not plan to replace them as long as they remain in good condition – a cost saving practice that has worked well at other area dams.
“When people continue to mischaracterize the costs associated with, and the value of, the hydropower generated by the lower Snake River Dams, it does not advance the conversation about where these facilities fit into the Northwest’s economic and environmental future,” Johnson says.
Coming failure Although he believes the economic and scientific case for taking out the Snake dams is indisputable, Pettit doubts the issue will be resolved in time to save the remaining wild salmon. “When I started fly fishing, I caught 400 to 500 steelhead a year,” says Pettit, who releases his fish back to the river. “Last year I caught two. I doubt I’ll even buy a steelhead tag this year.”
Meanwhile, dam experts worry that the public attention and support for funding adequate dam maintenance will fade despite the fatal dam failures and near-misses in recent years. “I hope the incidents that recently occurred in Michigan will raise awareness,” Ogden says. “History shows it will lose momentum.”
Karpowicz agrees. “We should expect we’ll be seeing more dam failures.”
Ken Olsen is a frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.
In addition to the danger posed by dam failures, some 50 people drown in fishing, boating and swimming accidents each year because of safety problems at dams, many of them abandoned. Learn more about dam safety issues in your region at damsafety.org.