An article from the Resource for the Future website discusses the risks of aging dam infrastructures to life and property across the United States. Dismantling them would be the best option and will bring benefits to the environment and community.
There are some 91,500 dams across the United States. The dams vary in age (from several decades up to a hundred years old), size (small and up to over 50 feet), make (earthen and concrete), and function or purpose.
Up to a third are used for recreation, flood protection, irrigation, fire protection, and a tiny fraction for hydropower.
In the past, dam failures cause catastrophic damages to property and assets amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. The article cites the failure of two dams in Michigan in May 2020. The main dam, Edenville, is privately owned and used in hydropower production.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has ordered the company to increase its spillway capacity, but it has neglected to do so. For many years and due to many compounding problems, the main dam collapsed, causing failure on the second dam. The collapse has caused 40 thousand people to evacuate and massive property damages amounting to $175 million.
Many old dams were built to power the old industries like textile mills, grist mills, and steel plants. These plants have long since closed, but the dams are still there.
In October 2005, a wooden dam in Massachusetts built in 1832 nearly collapsed and posed a threat to the community.
Realizing that thousands of similar dams exist, the state launched the Dam and Seawall Repair or Removal Program and provided $34 million in grants and loans for this purpose.
Dam removal advantages.
In many cases, dam removal is cost-effective than repairing it especially when dams no longer served their original purpose.
Dam removal has many environmental benefits – “restores a river’s natural function, improving water quality and conditions for aquatic habitat by increasing flows and reducing water temperatures, and provides passage to and from the ocean for anadromous fish species such as salmon.”
Another excellent result of dam removal is that when authorities dismantled three dams in the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, it produced class 5 rapids that stimulated recreation in the area, significantly improved water quality that enhanced river ecology, and reduced drowning fatalities.
Now the city is planning to remove more dams because of the many benefits it brought to their community.
Check out this successful dam removal story.
Challenges to the Removal of dams.
If dismantling dams are beneficial, why is the implementation ‘relatively slow’? As of January 2020, only 1700 have been removed across the states, the article says.
Some of the reasons given were:
- state and federal dam regulators are not stringent enough, and enforcement on privately-owned dams relies on voluntary compliance;
- efforts are focused only on high-hazard dams;
- underfunded state dam safety programs; not enough advocacy to back dam removals;
- high cost and inadequate funding; and lack of coordination across state agencies.
Not all dams in the US need to be removed, of course, as many of them provide valuable services like water storage, recreation, and hydropower, but only those in disrepair and no longer provide their intended use.
Dismantling them will not be a loss but would bring many benefits to the environment and the community.
Asset disposal is often a forgotten but essential part of asset lifecycle management. There can be considerable costs associated with asset disposal, site clean-up, and remediation in many cases.
These costs need to be considered and planned for in your state or local government’s infrastructure management planning.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jon Ridinger via Flickr Creative Commons License. The image has been modified to suit the website’s need.