In early 2017, the nation watched as nearly 200,000 residents evacuated the area below California’s Oroville Dam. The high-profile incident brought increased attention to the many challenges facing our nation’s dams, most recently graded a “D” in the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card.
Lessening risk and increasing information are major strides we can take to raise the Dams grade and ensure public safety. Today, National Dam Safety Awareness Day, is one part of achieving that goal. The day commemorates the 1889 failure of the South Fork Dam in Johnstown, Penn., which took 2,200 lives and serves as a reminder that dams need to be closely monitored and maintained.
One of the main challenges facing America’s dams is the increasing number that have high-hazard-potential. As our population grows, more people and property are likely to be living below a dam. The high-hazard-potential classification onto itself does not mean a dam is unsafe, but rather that failure or mis-operation would likely result in loss of life as well as significant economic losses, including damages to downstream property or critical infrastructure, environmental damage, and/or disruption of lifeline facilities. About 15,500 of the country’s 90,580 dams – 17 percent – are now designated as high-hazard-potential. That is why we as a country need to be doing more to address our nation’s aging dams.
Increased dam safety will be achieved through a combination of investment, resources, monitoring, and planning. For example, the Report Card recommends that every high-hazard-potential dam should have an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) by 2021. An EAP is like a fire safety plan for an entire community. We’re well on our way to achieving this goal, as 77% of high-hazard-potential dams have an EAP, up from 66% in the 2013 Report Card. Another way we can lessen dam safety risk is by funding the national dam rehab and repair program for non-federal dams, which was created through the Water Infrastructure Improves the Nation (WIIN) Act last December.
As dams age, just like all infrastructure, they require attention and investment. To safeguard the public, we need to improve our aging and deteriorating dams and ensure that every high-hazard-potential dam has an EAP. National Dam Safety Awareness Day needs to be a day of action. You can learn more at LivingNearDams.org. Do your part by asking Congress to fund the National Dam Rehabilitation Program.