Five percent of America's dams could fail

More than 4,400 dams in the U.S. are at risk of failing. At stake: the economy, the environment and the lives of residents in harm's way. Who will pay to rebuild this infrastructure?
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

You've heard it from government officials high and low, from your local municipality to the president of the United States: America's infrastructure needs a reboot.

But while the nation is captivated by smart power grids and improved water mains and larger airports and wider highways and deeper sewers and more efficient waste management -- all vital systems to modern living, no doubt about it -- there's a big one we're overlooking: dams.

The New York Times reported on Monday about the danger of a dam failure, namely that a catastrophic one could render commercial and residential neighborhoods into floodplains, killing thousands along the way.

Henry Fountain reports on Lake Isabella Dam in California:

The Army Corps of Engineers, which built and operates the 57-year-old dam, learned several years ago that it had three serious problems: it was in danger of eroding internally; water could flow over its top in the most extreme flood season; and a fault underneath it was not inactive after all but could produce a strong earthquake.

In a worst case, a catastrophic failure could send as much as 180 billion gallons of water — along with mud, boulders, trees and other debris, including, presumably, the ruins of Nelda’s Diner — churning down the canyon and into Bakersfield.

The floodwaters would turn the downtown and residential neighborhoods into a lake up to 30 feet deep and spread to industrial and agricultural areas.

Here's a sobering statistic: more than 4,400 of the nation’s 85,000 aging dams are considered susceptible to failure, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

The problem: the bill for repairing them totals tens of billions of dollars. But not doing so will lead, almost undoubtedly, to economic, environmental and social devastation.

Once again, infrastructure issues rear an ugly head. Who will take care of the technology built by generations before us? And will officials notice before a catastrophe spurs them to act?

Danger Pent Up Behind Aging Dams [New York Times]

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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