Dams Infrastructure Needs in the Spotlight

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The need for investment in our nation’s dams was in the spotlight this week as record rainfall caused two dam failures in Michigan and one potential dam failure in Virginia, resulting in the evacuation of thousands of residents. The two dams that failed in Michigan were high hazard potential dams, or dams whose failure is anticipated to cause a loss in life. ASCE’s 2018 Michigan Infrastructure Report Card gave the state’s dams infrastructure a grade of “C-“ and found that about two-thirds of all the state’s dams have reached the end of their typical 50-year design life. The report card recommends the creation of a dedicated state fund for the repair, replacement, or removal of unsafe or failing dams as a way to help raise the grade. ASDSO estimates it will cost $20.42 billion to bring our nation’s non-federal high hazard potential dams into a state of good repair; that’s an increase from $18.71 billion in 2016.

Long-time dams infrastructure champion Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) introduced this week the Dam Safety Improvement Act that makes changes to the High Hazard Potential Dam Rehabilitation (HHPDR) program. This legislation, which ASCE strongly supports, is identical to Section 1105 of the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2020 (S. 3591) that passed out of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee in early May. The legislation includes changes to better define technical terms and is designed to help the program, which was implemented for the first-time last year by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), run more smoothly in the future. As current written, the program has run into issues with the clarity of eligibility requirements, as well as technical definitions. ASCE 2020 President K.N. Gunalan “Guna,” Ph.D., P.E. thanked the Congressman for introducing a critical piece of legislation that highlights the vital role dams play in protecting our communities and in driving our economy.

ASCE supports the HHPDR program, which was enacted in the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act of 2016 and provides federal grant assistance for the rehabilitation, repair, or removal of non-federal high hazard potential dams. ASCE’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card gave our nation’s dams a grade of “D,” and recommends fully funding this program as a way to raise the grade.

Thanks to ASCE’s advocacy efforts, the HHPDR program has been funded at $10 million in both FY19 and FY20, and in the past two years, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) and John Katko (R-NY), as well as Sen. Reed (D-RI), led letters to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees requesting full funding for the program. ASCE also requested full funding ($60 million in FY21) for the program in our appropriations request letters this year.

ASCE will continue working with Congressman Maloney on passage of the Dam Safety Improvement Act and for its inclusion in the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee’s Water Resources Development Act of 2020, which we expect to be released in the coming weeks. We are also advocating for passage of the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2020, which awaits a full vote in the Senate. (You can read a comprehensive summary of the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2020 here.)

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