The floodwaters are swelling, but the resources needed to confront them are shriveling up. That's the frustrating reality that state dam officials face as they confront added stress to the thousands of structures they regulate.
Extreme weather, shifting demographics and the simple passage of time are teaming up to erode the condition of dams and increase the cost of their failure, often measured in millions of dollars and significant numbers of lives lost.
The number of deficient dams in the U.S. — those with structural or hydraulic issues that increase the risk of failure — is rising dramatically, outpacing the rate at which they can be fixed. But as austerity continues across governments, funds for inspection and upkeep are static or shrinking in most states.
In 2011, states combined to employ just 422 fulltime workers to oversee 87,679 structures, averaging out to more than 200 per person. Of those dams, 11,388 were deemed “high-hazard,” a category quantified differently across states but associated with the likelihood that a failure will lead to fatalities.
“They're doing the best job they can. They just don't have the resources,” says Lori Spragens, executive director of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. “There are just not enough inspectors out there.” A 2009 study by the group estimated it would cost $16 billion to make the most urgent repairs over the next 12 years.
With little help on the way from state legislatures, dam safety advocates are hoping that assistance will come from lawmakers in Washington. When the Senate reconvenes following the election, it will be asked to consider reviving the 2006 National Dam Safety Act, a measure tacked onto a larger bill that has passed in the House. The $14 million yearly program, which expired a year ago, helped states retain staff, educate dam owners and buy essential equipment. Since then, funding has trickled in from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but it has fallen short of plugging the gap.
“States definitely need those grants… It's not comprehensive or robust, but it's very important,” says Spragens. “Without inspectors out there, you're going to start seeing failures in every state.”
Though dams play huge roles in water allocation, flood protection and recreation, questions about their condition are rarely at the forefront of lawmakers' minds.
Most dams were built before 1970, including more than 2,000 nationwide that are more than a century old, leaving them prone to damage, whether they are fashioned from metal and concrete or made of earthen construction.
Many early dams were fitted with corrugated metal pipes, which rust through and need to be replaced after 50 years. That's just one type of internal erosion that can continue for years undetected. What's more, old dams were built by people who understood hydrology far less than engineers do now. “They all need to be inspected,” says Paul Schweiger, an engineering manager with Pennsylvania-based Gannett Fleming, who has worked on dams throughout the country. “But if you have 3,000 dams in the state and only two to three people looking at them, you can only do so much.”
Numbers alone don't tell the full story, but they reflect a sobering reality for states, which are tasked with regulating about 8 of every 10 dams.
Alabama has no safety program at all, meaning that many of the state's 2,000-plus dams escape any form of oversight. It's the only state where that's the case. But several others aren't doing much better.
South Carolina employs fewer than two full time-equivalent workers to oversee its 2,380 dams, 160 of which are high-hazard. In 2011 its dam safety budget was just $65,000, the salary of one fulltime employee. State environmental officials did not respond to Stateline's interview request.
In Iowa, a surge in torrential rains has caused rivers to spill their banks with growing frequency, including the waters of the Lake Delhi Dam, whose failure along the Maquoketa River in 2010 flooded dozens of homes and destroyed a popular vacationing spot. Lawmakers have recently provided more resources for flood prevention, an encouraging sign, state water officials say, but the budget for dam safety remains tiny. Just two full-time and two part-time inspectors now oversee 3,768 dams, including more than 200 that state officials say need frequent attention.
“We will ensure that all inspections will be completed, but more is expected to be done than is possible,” says Lori McDaniel, who heads Iowa's dam program.
The Iowa staff is working with 30 to 40 private owners who need to upgrade their dams, and meeting with local officials to hash out emergency action plans in case any of the state's 91 high- hazard dams fail. At least 12 plans have been finished, McDaniel says. But that's well below the 70 percent national average of high-hazard dams with emergency plans in place.
Even so, Iowa is doing better than it did only a few years ago. Though meager, Iowa's dam safety resources have grown since the floods of 2008 ravaged homes, business and agriculture, totaling up to $2 billion in damages. In 2008, the state employed just one inspector with a budget of just $20,000. Since then, federal grants have helped pay inspectors' salaries and buy new equipment. But those grants have been shrinking amid the failure to renew the 2006 Dam Safety Act.
The same can be said in Kansas, where a nine-member staff oversees more than 6,000 dams, 220 of which are high-hazard. Half of those positions are funded by federal grants. “We're definitely on a downward trend in funding. It's pretty bleak.” says Chad Voigt, who manages the state's water structures program.
In Iowa and Kansas, as in many states, inspectors generally find time to at least monitor known high-hazard dams, those whose failures could kill nearby residents. But that hasn't always been the case in other states.
In Hawaii, it took a major tragedy to turn officials' attention to dam safety. The state was late to adopt safety standards for the 142 dams on its islands. Then, in March 2006, the Kaloko Dam burst under the pressure of heavy rain, killing seven people on the island of Kauai. An investigation found that the 100-year old dam, erroneously classified as low-hazard, had rarely been inspected. Hawaii now has a five-member dam safety staff with a budget of more than $750,000.
One reason for faulty classification of dams is that suburban development has pushed into rural areas where engineers long ago planned dam construction with only agriculture in mind. Those dams were considered low-hazard; failure meant only flooded land — not inundated homes or businesses or threatened lives. As a result, such dams often lack the safeguards needed to protect people living nearby.
Inspectors try to keep tabs on those dams, but they can be time-consuming to pinpoint. Between 1998 and 2012, the number of state-regulated high-hazard dams in the country increased by more than 2,000, according to tracking by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
In Georgia, whose population has grown substantially since 2006, federal money has helped the state make a dent in its backlog of unclassified dams, but more than 500 still need to be looked at.
In 2011, the state classified 474 of its more than 4,000 dams as high-hazard. The program's staff has seven workers. Tom Woosley, the program's manager, says private dam owners should take more responsibility for maintenance and inspect their dams quarterly. But few are vigilant.
The situation is different in Kansas, where state regulators are increasingly privatizing the inspections process, requiring owners to get private contractors to sign off on their dams. The process has helped ease the state's burden, but it's also led to a backlog of paperwork, Voigt says.
“We're not able to keep up.”