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InfrastructureMany U.S. dams are obsolete, costly, aging, and unsafe

Published 1 November 2016

As is the case with much of America’s aging infrastructure, many of the country’s estimated two million dams are obsolete, costly, aging, and unsafe. Nearly 4,000 dams around the country have been reported as deficient, and the American Society of Civil Engineers has given America’s dam infrastructure a D rating. “It shouldn’t take a catastrophic failure for the dams in this country to get much-needed attention,” said the author of a new report. “Unfortunately, as is the case with much of our aging infrastructure, we jump from crisis to crisis and fail to plan ahead.”

With an uptick in extreme weather events and a majority of American dams approaching the end of their expected lifespans, it is time to rethink public policy on dams, according to a new report released by the Center for American Progress (CAP). The report release coincided with an event hosted by CAP titled, Assessing the Condition of America’s Dams and Rivers.

CAP says that as is the case with much of America’s aging infrastructure, many of the country’s estimated two million dams are obsolete, costly, aging, and unsafe. Nearly 4,000 dams around the country have been reported as deficient, and the American Society of Civil Engineers has given America’s dam infrastructure a D rating. In light of this public safety risk, CAP’s report looks at the condition of America’s dams and recommends incentivizing the decommissioning and removal of obsolete and unnecessary dams while also modernizing dams that are still needed.

“It shouldn’t take a catastrophic failure for the dams in this country to get much-needed attention,” said Jenny Rowland, Research and Advocacy Associate for CAP’s Public Lands Project and author of the report. “Unfortunately, as is the case with much of our aging infrastructure, we jump from crisis to crisis and fail to plan ahead. This report outlines a system for beginning to address the thousands of obsolete and unnecessary dams that currently block rivers, pose safety threats, and should be considered for removal.”

“At a time when more than half of the dams in this country are past their intended life span, addressing this public safety hazard is critical,” said David J. Hayes, CAP Senior Fellow and former deputy secretary of the interior. “This report lays out policies that will accelerate the removal of dams clogging our riverways and put the country on track to not only be safer but to better reap the benefits of healthy rivers and more resilient infrastructure.”

In addition to the safety concerns associated with the crumbling infrastructure of dams past their prime, today’s report includes a new analysis from CAP and Conservation Science Partners that explores just how harmful dams can be to river health. Dams and reservoirs have modified the flow of 71 percent of western rivers by length, and western rivers are 66 percent more fragmented than they would be without dams. These disruptions have significant impacts on water quality and quantity, as well as on the movement and survival of fish and the resilience of surrounding ecosystems.

“With the flow of 7 out of every ten western rivers altered by dam infrastructure, it’s no wonder that the Pacific Northwest salmon and steelhead trout populations have dwindled significantly,” added Rowland. “Removing dams that have outlived their usefulness and pose the most threat to public safety would help restore these fisheries to the economic powerhouses they once were.”

The report offers the following recommendations:

1) Incentivize the decommissioning and removal of obsolete and unnecessary dams:

  • Include decommissioning as a required option in NEPA review, federal dam funding, and permitting.
  • Incentivize private capital to work on dam removal.
  • Perform a comprehensive review of federal dams to address safety concerns and determine if they are providing a net benefit to taxpayers.

2) Modernize dams that are beneficial and needed:

  • Fix safety problems through a Safe Dams Fund.
  • Add pumped storage and small hydropower where appropriate.
  • Improve dam management and technologies to reduce environmental impact.

— Read more in Jenny Rowland, Aging Dams and Clogged Rivers: An Infrastructure Plan for America’s Waterways (Center of American Progress, 18 October 2016)