Dams provide vital service and protection to our communities and the economy. The average age of the 90,580 dams in America is 56 years. As our population grows and development continues, the overall number of high-hazard potential dams is increasing, with the number climbing to nearly 15,500 in 2016. Due to the lack of investment, the number of deficient high-hazard potential dams has also climbed to an estimated 2,170 or more. It is estimated that it will require an investment of nearly $45 billion to repair aging, yet critical, high-hazard potential dams.
Dams come in a variety of sizes and serve a number of purposes. Our nation’s dams provide essential benefits such as drinking water, irrigation, hydropower, flood control, and recreation. The public most commonly thinks of engineering marvels like the Hoover Dam in Nevada rather than the smaller structure that created the lake at the center of a planned community. No matter how large or small, dams have a powerful presence that frequently is overlooked until failure has occurred.
Investment is needed to rehabilitate deficient dams and to improve the efficacy of policies and regulatory programs that oversee dam safety programs. Upgrade or rehabilitation is necessary due to deterioration, changing technical standards, and improved techniques, as well as better understanding of the area’s precipitation conditions, increases in downstream populations, and changing land use. When a dam’s hazard classification is changed to reflect an increased hazard potential, the dam may need to be upgraded to meet an increased need for safety. Many dam owners, especially private dam owners, find it difficult to finance rehabilitation projects.
In order to improve public safety and resilience, the risk and consequences of dam failure must be lowered. Progress requires better planning for mitigating the effects of failures; increased regulatory oversight of the safety of dams; improving coordination and communication across governing agencies; and the development of tools, training, and technology.