Dams are ag­ing across the USA

1 in 5 fa­cil­i­ties in grow­ing pop­u­lated ar­eas don’t have ‘a good emer­gency ac­tion plan’

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Ben­jamin Spill­man, Jill Castel­lano and Tracy Loew Con­tribut­ing: Mark Ni­chols, USA TO­DAY. Ben­jamin Spill­man re­ports for the Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Jour­nal; Jill Castel­lano, The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun; and Tracy Loew, (Salem, Ore.) States­man Jour­nal

Com­mu­ni­ties down­stream in­creas­ingly at risk

As the na­tion’s 84,000 dams con­tinue to age, a grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple down­stream are at risk, ex­perts say.

That’s not only be­cause of older in­fras­truc­ture but also be­cause of pop­u­la­tion growth around some of the dams.

More than a quar­ter were de­vel­oped pri­mar­ily for recre­ational pur­poses, ac­cord­ing to Na­tional In­ven­tory of Dams data from 2016.

“The na­tion’s dams are ag­ing, and the num­ber of high-haz­ard dams is on the rise,” ac­cord­ing to a re­port in 2013 from the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Civil En­gi­neers. “Many of th­ese dams were built as low-haz­ard dams pro­tect­ing un­de­vel­oped agri­cul­tural land. How­ever, with an in­creas­ing pop­u­la­tion and greater devel­op­ment be­low dams, the over­all num­ber of high-haz­ard dams con­tin­ues to in­crease.”

That prob­lem was high­lighted this week as nearly 200,000 peo­ple evac­u­ated an area near Cali- for­nia’s Oroville Dam, about 150 miles north­east of San Fran­cisco. Cal­i­for­nia wa­ter of­fi­cials were wor­ried that ero­sion they dis­cov­ered Sun­day at the top of its emer­gency spill­way could send a 30-foot-tall wall of wa­ter down the Feather River and through the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia cities of Oroville, Yuba City and Marysville.

The pop­u­la­tion of Oroville, less than 10 miles down­river from Oroville Dam, has more than dou­bled since the dam was com­pleted in 1968.

Most U.S. dams were com­pleted from 1950 to 1980. A small frac­tion of dams, 2.8%, were built be­fore 1900. More than 4,000 dams have been built since 2000, ac­count­ing for 4.5% of all U.S. dams.

The lat­est data in the dams in­ven­tory, which the Army Corps of En­gi­neers com­piles, show al­most 15,500 dams across the USA are char­ac­ter­ized as high haz­ard, mean­ing at least one per­son could die if the dam were to fail.

“The na­tion’s dams are ag­ing, and the num­ber of high-haz­ard dams is on the rise,” ac­cord­ing to the re­port. “Many of th­ese dams were built as low-haz­ard dams pro­tect­ing un­de­vel­oped agri­cul­tural land. How­ever, with an in­creas­ing pop­u­la­tion and greater devel­op­ment be­low dams, the over­all num­ber of high-haz­ard dams con­tin­ues to in­crease.”

Among those high-haz­ard dams, nearly one in five lack an emer­gency ac­tion plan, a doc­u­ment dam own­ers main­tain that in­cludes crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion such as emer­gency con­tacts, de­tails about the dam and an in­un­da­tion map.

“If you have a good emer­gency ac­tion plan, you are go­ing to re- duce the con­se­quences if the dam fails,” said Lori Spra­gens, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the As­so­ci­a­tion of State Dam Safety Of­fi­cials.

The av­er­age age of the USA’s 84,000 dams is 52, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Civil En­gi­neers’ re­port.

“We can’t seem to get the fed­eral gov­ern­ment or the states in­ter­ested in fund­ing the most fun­da­men­tal part of what makes us go, which is in­fras­truc­ture,” Spra­gens said. “It just needs so much more at­ten­tion at a na­tional level.”

In seven states, more than half of the high-haz­ard dams op­er­ate with­out emer­gency ac­tion plans, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­ven­tory of Dams: In South Carolina, it’s 96%. Mis­sis­sippi, 88%. Rhode Is­land, 82%. Alabama, 79%. New Mex­ico, 61%. Florida, 58%.

North Carolina, 57%. Only three states — Louisiana, Maine and Ten­nessee — and Puerto Rico have emer­gency plans in place for all the dams with high-haz­ard po­ten­tial.

Cal­i­for­nia has more than 1,500 dams, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­ven­tory of Dams data­base. Of those, 52% are high-haz­ard, the fourth-high­est of any state.

Na­tion­wide, 17% of dams are high-haz­ard.

In Cal­i­for­nia, more than a third, 36%, of the high-haz­ard dams don’t have an emer­gency plan, which would kick into gear if the dam ap­peared to be a threat.

Oroville Dam does have an emer­gency plan.

JOSH EDELSON, AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A build­ing is sub­merged in flow­ing wa­ter at River­bend Park as the Oroville Dam re­leases wa­ter Mon­day.

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