Dam Catastrophes Can Be Prevented

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Last week, more than 10,000 people in central Michigan were evacuated when a rain-swollen artificial lake breached two dams in a row. Nobody died in the resulting “500-year flood,” but countless homes and businesses, including a chemical plant, were inundated. Damage could reach nearly $900 million.

Dam failures aren’t as rare as you might think: In the U.S., they happen roughly two dozen times a year. Most are minor, but some cause catastrophic flooding, billions of dollars of damage, and even deaths. Last year, a breach in Nebraska unleashed an 11-foot wave, killing one person before flooding three counties. In 2006, a dam breach in Hawaii dumped 400,000 gallons of water downstream, leaving seven dead. All told, some 1,700 dams across the U.S. pose a risk to human life, according to one recent analysis.

America’s dams are critical infrastructure. It’s about time they were properly maintained.

This essential work is perennially underfunded. One federal program for dam rehabilitation, for example, was meant to distribute $445 million dollars over a decade starting in 2017. Congress chose not to fund it at all in its first two years, and allocated just $10 million last year. The National Dam Safety Program is supposed to receive $13.9 million a year; in 2019, lawmakers gave it just two-thirds of that sum.

Even if they were fully funded, these programs would provide a mere sliver of the $20 billion (not million) experts say is needed to fix the country’s “high-hazard” dams. Congress should step up. It should expand funding for its existing rehabilitation and safety programs, and give the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation the resources they need to tackle the enormous backlog of deferred maintenance.

Aside from lack of money, efforts are suffocated by a crazy quilt of state and federal agencies. (Alabama is an extreme case: It has no dam safety laws or regulations at all.) On average, states have just one inspector for every 200 dams. In providing more resources, federal lawmakers should fashion incentives for states to adopt and enforce better standards.

Bear in mind that, thanks to climate change, the problem will only get worse. The typical dam was designed for a mid-20th-century climate and not for the warmer and wetter weather that lies ahead. Fighting climate change is crucial, it goes without saying, but adapting to more rain is necessary, too. Dam owners should be pushed to update their emergency plans, and emergency-management officials should do the same.

The collapse in Michigan has drawn fresh attention to a long-overlooked problem. This time, something should be done about it.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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