Let's Be Dam Nervous

Life has returned pretty much to normal below the Oroville Dam in California, where 188,000 people were told to evacuate earlier this month because part of the structure failed. What should not return is the peoples’ confidence that they are safe. They aren’t.

Neither are the millions of other Americans who live with a false sense of security below dams or behind levees. The experts warn that all regions of the United States are vulnerable to floods. All levels of government and all the people who live in natural flood zones had better get prepared. This is not alarmism. It is one of the few situations in which the “perfect storm” cliché is literally true.

Five elements are coming together to increase the likelihood of catastrophic losses of life and property. First, dams and levees are getting old. The expected lifespan of many flood control structures is 50 years. The average age of federal dams is more than 52 years, so their degradation is to be expected.

Second, the construction of flood control structures over the last 125 years has encouraged more people to live and work in natural floodplains. Dams and levees have been successful in saving lives and property, but if one fails the loss of life and property is likely to be much greater than if the structure had not been built.

Third, the owners of the dams – about a third of them local, state or federal governments -- have deferred maintenance over the years, choosing to spend the money on other priorities. That includes Congress, which has failed to provide a sufficient and dependable flow of money for the Army Corps of Engineers to keep up with repairs. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that the Corps and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aren’t moving quickly enough, either.

As a result, the number of high-hazard dams and levees is growing faster than they can be repaired. As of last fall, the Corps had identified more than 27,000 publicly or privately owned dams with significant or high hazard ratings. It would take $25 billion and more than 50 years just to fix the dams it it controls, the Corps says. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation figures that repairing the 20 high-hazard dams it owns would cost $2 billion over 15 years. The Association of Dam Safety Officials has estimated it would take more than $57 billion to repair all known hazardous dams. We have reached the day of reckoning for decisions of the past.

Fourth, even the dams and levees that are still in good shape were not designed to handle the intense rainfalls we are experiencing today. Federal climate scientists confirm that our heaviest rainfall events are becoming heavier and more frequent. The number of these events has been well above average since 1991. A dramatic example of the result was the failure of at least 20 dams in South Carolina during catastrophic floods in the fall of 2015.

Fifth and finally, if the federal government wants to control spending, bring down the federal debt and allocate tens of billions of dollars for dam and levee repairs, it can not afford to keep subsidizing flood insurance and helping communities rebuild back in the path of floods.

So what is to be done? First, we need a national water assessment and strategy to better manage this century’s flood risks. Among other things, it should address what the future of dams and levees should be.

Second, Congress should stiffen its spine and practice tough love for the people who choose to live in natural floodplains and the larger areas at risk of dam and levee failures. Congress decided to end flood insurance subsidies in 2012, then reversed course two years later. The National Flood Insurance Program, already more than $20 billion in the red, has been on the GAO’s high-risk list since 2006. Americans who choose to live with the risk of flooding should buy private insurance at rates that reflect their real exposure.

Next, Congress should consider putting limits on the number of times or the amount of money the government spends on disaster recovery for a flood-prone community, adopting the principle that it’s not fair for all taxpayers to be liable for other peoples’ decisions to live at risk. The option of buying out floodplain properties or relocating them to higher ground should be used much more often.

Going forward, we need to redefine flood protection. It is likely to be a combination of structural measures, local adaptation, and the restoration of the natural systems that retard floods. Healthy wetlands, revegetated watersheds, river meander and permeable urban surfaces are among the options.

There has been plenty of news and editorial coverage about high-hazard dams and levees and the rising risks of catastrophic floods, but there has not been enough action by government. It’s not easy to find the correct balance between compassion and tough love. But if congressional leaders and the president continue pretending that climate change doesn’t exist and fail to help the nation prepare, we will all pay the costs of weather disasters as taxpayers or as victims.

Note: The map at the beginning of this post shows only the dams regulated by states. A map showing all hazardous dams would be significantly more crowded.

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