Do Two Failed Dams Foretell a Dire Future?

of occurring in any given year. If we consider dams older than 60 years in counties with a population larger than 500,000 in the Great Lakes region, we have 317 high hazard dams, and the chance of one or more dams experiencing a 500- or 1,000-year event in a year would be 47 percent and 27 percent respectively — pretty high, and while not all would lead to a failure, it is something to think about. The Great Lakes have varied with approximately 10-year cycles for over a century and are currently at or above record high levels. Extreme rainfall events are happening much more frequentlythan in the last 100 years. In this “wet” cycle, it is possible that more dams will fail. The question to ask is what the state governments in the region are preparing to deal with the potential floods and dam breaks.

Who needs to act, and what needs to be done to address this massive problem? There is an Association of State Dam Safety (ASDS), with state dam safety offices as members. FEMA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation each have a National Dam Safety Program. Despite the ongoing efforts of these groups, and existing legislation and policies for the inspection and re-certification of dams, we lack a cohesive strategy to fix the problem. The Edenville Dam was decertified in 2018, yet it was still operating when it broke last week. Boyce Hydro, its owner, alleges that the failure is due to the State of Michigan requiring it to keep water levels high for environmental reasons. This is disputed. The New York Times and the Associated Press have reported on the state of dams, and have published information as to the inspection frequency and state of the dams using FOIA processes for at least a decade. The National Inventory of Damsprovides information on some basic statistics of the dams, but selected information is no longer made available in the interest of “national security.”

A hazard and prioritization analysis, such as the one we prototyped, could be done quite rapidly given data and resources, to at least screen and identify the subset of dams that needs urgent attention and investment by the federal government to avoid a future disaster declaration and the associated cash outlays. Yet, we do not see any of the agencies responsible pursuing such a strategy and/or informing the public of the collective risk the nation faces. In the age of big data, it is imperative that this be done as the first step in a process that eventually fixes the dams or removes them, with stakeholder input.

COVID-19 should at least remind us that an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of post-event anguish. As the federal government puts $3 trillion toward COVID recovery, it puts $10 million a year toward dam repair — a paltry sum compared to the $70 billion the ASDS estimates is needed to repair dams. Put that in the context of Oroville, where the post-failure repair cost $1 billion. If Oroville had actually failed, the damages would have been in the several billions with widespread havoc. What should we spend now to avoid spending trillions later?

Read another version of this story in the New York Times Opinion section. Upmanu Lall is the director of the Columbia Water Center. Paulina Concha Larrauri is a researcher at the Columbia Water Center.This storyis published courtesy of Earth Institute, Columbia University.