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He Died When the Dam Gave Way. More Could Share His Fate

An AP investigation looks at the threat posed by aging US dams
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 10, 2019 2:50 PM CST
He Died When the Dam Gave Way. More Could Share His Fate
Reservoir No. 1 is a 180 million-gallon water supply that has been out of service much of the past few decades. Atlanta made repairs and brought it back online in 2017, only to shut it down again after leaks were noticed. Were it to catastrophically fail, water could inundate more than 1,000 homes.   (AP Photo/David Goldman)

On a cold morning last March, Kenny Angel got a frantic knock on his door. Two workers from a utility company in northern Nebraska had come with a stark warning: Get out of your house. Just a little over a quarter-mile upstream, the 92-year-old Spencer Dam was straining to contain the swollen, ice-covered Niobrara River after an unusually intense snow and rainstorm. The workers had tried but failed to force open the dam's frozen wooden spillway gates. They fled in their truck, stopping to warn Angel before driving away without him (it's unclear whether the 71-year-old declined to flee or ran out of time). Minutes later, the dam came crashing down, unleashing a wave of water carrying ice chunks the size of cars. Angel's home was wiped away; his body was never found.

State inspectors had given the dam a "fair" rating less than a year earlier. Until it failed, it looked little different from thousands of others across the US—and that could portend a problem. A more than two-year investigation by the AP has found scores of dams nationwide in even worse condition, and in equally dangerous locations. They loom over homes, businesses, highways, or entire communities that could face life-threatening floods if the dams don't hold. Standout details:

  • A review of federal data and reports obtained under state open records laws identified 1,688 high-hazard dams rated in poor or unsatisfactory condition as of last year in 44 states and Puerto Rico.
  • The actual number is almost certainly higher: Some states declined to provide condition ratings for their dams, claiming exemptions to public record requests. Others simply haven't rated all their dams due to lack of funding, staffing or authority to do so.
  • Deaths from dam failures have declined since a series of catastrophic collapses in the 1970s prompted the federal and state governments to step up their safety efforts. Yet about 1,000 dams have failed over the past four decades, killing 34 people, according to Stanford University's National Performance of Dams Program.
  • Built for flood control, irrigation, water supply, hydropower, recreation, or industrial waste storage, the nation's dams are over a half-century old on average. Some are no longer adequate to handle the intense rainfall and floods of a changing climate. Yet they are being relied upon to protect more and more people as housing developments spring up nearby.
  • "There are thousands of people in this country that are living downstream from dams that are probably considered deficient given current safety standards," said Mark Ogden, a former Ohio dam safety official who is now a technical specialist with the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
  • The association estimates it would take more than $70 billion to repair and modernize the nation's more than 90,000 dams. But unlike much other infrastructure, most US dams are privately owned. That makes it difficult for regulators to require improvements from operators who are unable or unwilling to pay the steep costs.
(The AP has much more here.)

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