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AP finds thousands face risk because of aging US dams

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AP finds thousands face risk because of aging US dams

On a chilly morning final March, Kenny Angel received a frantic knock on his door. Two employees from a utility firm in northern Nebraska had include a stark warning: Get out of your own home.

Just somewhat over a quarter-mile upstream, the 92-year-old Spencer Dam was straining to include the swollen, ice-covered Niobrara River after an unusually intense snow and rainstorm. The employees had tried however did not drive open the dam’s frozen picket spillway gates. So, fearing the worst, they fled of their truck, stopping to warn Angel earlier than driving away with out him.

Minutes later, the dam got here crashing down, unleashing a wave of water carrying ice chunks the dimensions of automobiles. Angel’s house was wiped away; his physique was by no means discovered.

“He had about a 5-minute notice, with no prior warning the day before,” Scott Angel, one of Kenny’s brothers, stated.

State inspectors had given the dam a “fair” ranking lower than a 12 months earlier. Until it failed, it appeared little totally different from thousands of others throughout the U.S. – and that might portend an issue.

A greater than two-year investigation by The Associated Press has discovered scores of dams nationwide in even worse situation, and in equally harmful areas. They loom over houses, companies, highways or whole communities that might face life-threatening floods if the dams don’t maintain.

A assessment of federal knowledge and stories obtained below state open information legal guidelines recognized 1,688 high-hazard dams rated in poor or unsatisfactory situation as of final 12 months in 44 states and Puerto Rico. The precise quantity is nearly definitely greater: Some states declined to offer situation scores for his or her dams, claiming exemptions to public file requests. Others merely haven’t rated all their dams because of lack of funding, staffing or authority to take action.

Deaths from dam failures have declined since a collection of catastrophic collapses within the 1970s prompted the federal and state governments to step up their security efforts. Yet about 1,000 dams have failed over the previous 4 a long time, killing 34 folks, in response to Stanford University’s National Performance of Dams Program.

Built for flood management, irrigation, water provide, hydropower, recreation or industrial waste storage, the nation’s dams are over a half-century outdated on common. Some are not ample to deal with the extraordinary rainfall and floods of a altering local weather. Yet they’re being relied upon to guard an increasing number of folks as housing developments spring up close by.

“There are thousands of people in this country that are living downstream from dams that are probably considered deficient given current safety standards,” stated Mark Ogden, a former Ohio dam security official who’s now a technical specialist with the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

The affiliation estimates it might take greater than $70 billion to restore and modernize the nation’s greater than 90,000 dams. But in contrast to a lot different infrastructure, most U.S. dams are privately owned. That makes it troublesome for regulators to require enhancements from operators who’re unable or unwilling to pay the steep prices.

“Most people have no clue about the vulnerabilities when they live downstream from these private dams,” stated Craig Fugate, a former administrator on the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “When they fail, they don’t fail with warning. They just fail, and suddenly you can find yourself in a situation where you have a wall of water and debris racing toward your house with very little time, if any, to get out.”


It’s unclear whether or not Angel, a 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran, declined to flee or just ran out of time after employees with the Nebraska Public Power District warned him that water was overtopping the dam close to Spencer, a city of fewer than 500 residents.

An legal professional for Angel’s spouse, who wasn’t house when the dam broke, has filed a $5 million lawsuit alleging negligence. It claims the ability utility did not correctly keep the dam, practice its workers or inform the Angels of harmful situations.

Even although the Angels’ house was squarely in its path, the dam was rated as a “significant” moderately than “high” hazard, that means it wasn’t required below Nebraska legislation to have a proper emergency motion plan. About 20% of state-regulated high-hazard dams nationwide nonetheless lack emergency plans, in response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the nationwide dam stock.

When final inspected in April 2018 , Spencer Dam’s “fair” ranking was accompanied by an ominous notation: “Deficiencies exist which could lead to dam failure during rare, extreme storm events.”

Tim Gokie, chief engineer of Nebraska’s dam security program, stated the warning was because of previous water seepage the ability utility addressed by putting in a drain system. Ultimately, Gokie stated, the rising Niobrara River merely overwhelmed the concrete and earthen dam, which was in-built 1927 to generate hydroelectricity, not for flood management.

“The fact was that it was just an unprecedented situation,” Nebraska Public Power District spokesman Mark Becker stated. “It was beyond what everybody anticipated.”

Nebraska was among the many states hardest hit by storms and floods this 12 months which have brought about an estimated $1.5 billion in injury to roads, dams, utilities and different infrastructure in 28 states, in response to an AP evaluation.

A National Climate Assessment launched by the White House final 12 months famous rising frequency and depth of storms because the local weather modifications. That can push some dams past what they had been designed to deal with.

Even if stored in good situation, thousands of dams may very well be at risk because of excessive rainstorms, stated Fugate, the previous FEMA official.

“These are like ticking bombs just sitting there, waiting for the wrong conditions to occur to cause catastrophic failure,” he stated.


The nation’s dams are categorized as excessive, important or low hazard within the National Inventory of Dams database. High hazard means loss of human life is probably going if a dam had been to fail. A major ranking means no deaths are seemingly, though financial and environmental injury are attainable.

There isn’t any nationwide customary for inspecting dams, resulting in a patchwork of state laws. Some states examine high-hazard dams yearly whereas others wait as much as 5 years. Some states by no means examine low-hazard dams – although even farm ponds can ultimately pose a excessive hazard as housing developments encroach.

Dam situations are purported to be rated as unsatisfactory, poor, honest or passable. But the scores are subjective – various by state and the interpretations of particular person inspectors – and will not be at all times publicly disclosed.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror assaults, the U.S. authorities has cited nationwide safety grounds in refusing to incorporate dams’ situations in its stock, which was up to date most not too long ago in 2018. But the AP was in a position to decide each situation and hazard scores for greater than 25,000 dams throughout the nation via public information requests.

The tally consists of some of the nation’s most well-known dams, corresponding to Hoover Dam alongside the Colorado River, however largely entails privately owned dams. Many are used for recreation.

The AP then examined inspection stories for a whole bunch of high-hazard dams in poor or unsatisfactory situation. Those stories cited a range of issues: leaks that may point out a dam is failing internally; unrepaired erosion from previous cases of overtopping; holes from burrowing animals; tree progress that may destabilize earthen dams; and spillways too small to deal with a big flood. Some dams had been so overgrown with vegetation that they couldn’t be totally inspected.

Georgia led the nation with practically 200 high-hazard dams in unsatisfactory or poor situation, in response to the AP’s evaluation.

Among them is Reservoir No. 1 in Atlanta, a 180 million-gallon water provide courting to the late 1800s that has been out of service a lot of the previous few a long time. The metropolis made repairs and introduced it again on-line in 2017, solely to close it down once more after leaks had been seen.

If the dam had been to catastrophically fail, the water may inundate greater than 1,000 houses, dozens of companies, a railroad and a portion of Interstate 75, in response to an emergency motion plan .

Joel Iverson has beforehand seen water trickling out of the dam close to the brewery he co-founded, Monday Night Brewing.

“If that one goes, it’s going to wash away us and a lot of beer,” Iverson stated.

The Atlanta Watershed Management Department declined the AP’s request for an interview in regards to the reservoir and as an alternative requested for questions in writing. When these had been submitted, it declined to reply them.


One of the commonest issues for aging dams are spillways incapable of dealing with an excessive rainfall occasion.

If water can’t escape rapidly sufficient via spillways, it may stream excessive of a dam, which will increase the likelihood of fast erosion that may trigger it to break down.

The spillway on the 107-year-old Willett Pond Dam close to the Boston suburb of Norwood is succesful of dealing with simply 13% of the water stream from a severe flood earlier than the dam is overtopped, in response to a latest state inspection report. If the dam had been to offer means, it may ship a whole bunch of tens of millions of gallons of water into the center of town of practically 30,000 folks.

“We are not talking of just flooding someone’s house. We are talking about covering their house,” stated Murray Beach, who lives on the shore of the 220-acre privately owned lake and belongs to a residents group that has lobbied for years for the spillway to be repaired.

A 2017 inspection report stated enhancements to the spillway may price between $1 million and $5 million. A nonprofit that owns the lake acquired a $215,000 state grant final 12 months to design spillway enhancements. But there isn’t any timeline to repair it.

More than 1,300 properties lie inside the dam’s inundation zone, together with a number of buying facilities and no less than two elementary faculties, in addition to greater than 70 roads and two railroads.

Tamiko Porter, who operates a Montessori faculty serving some 75 college students, stated she was stunned to study there was a dam upstream that might flood her faculty if it failed.

“Oh God, please let it happen when my kids aren’t here,” Porter stated.

Norwood emergency administration director Bernard Cooper stated there isn’t any imminent risk of dam failure.

“Yes, it needs work. The spillway should be rebuilt. Absolutely, no question,” Cooper acknowledged. But “there is no money in the system for that.”

Concerns about insufficient dam spillways date again a long time to when the Corps of Engineers undertook its first nationwide evaluation of dams posing a excessive risk to life and property. From 1978 to 1981, the Corps inspected 8,818 dams. About one-third had been deemed unsafe because of deficiencies, and about 80% of these cited insufficient spillway capacities.

One of the dams cited for a “seriously inadequate” spillway in 1978 was Lake Sebago, situated in a New York state park close to the village of Sloatsburg. Forty years later, nothing has modified.

A 2018 state inspection letter warned of “inadequate spillway capacity and dam stability” and requested for an enchancment plan inside 30 days. None was offered.

The state dam security workplace has no authority to drive the state parks division to make repairs.

To modify the Lake Sebago spillway, employees must rebuild a street and bridge that move over the dam. The challenge may price over $15 million, stated Jim Hall, the not too long ago retired government director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, which manages a number of dams.

“That structure has been in place with the same spillway capacity for over probably 60 to 70 years and it hasn’t been overtopped,” Hall stated. “Should it be improved to meet all codes? Yeah, that would be nice. Does it make it the highest priority for us to do in relation to other dam structures we have? Probably not.”


In a 1982 report summarizing its nationwide dam evaluation, the Corps of Engineers stated most dam house owners had been unwilling to switch, restore or keep the constructions, and most states had been unwilling to spend sufficient cash for an efficient dam security program.

Since then, each state however Alabama has created a dam security program.

But the Great Recession a decade in the past pressured many states to make widespread price range and personnel cuts. Since a low level in 2011, states’ complete spending on dam security has grown by about one-third to almost $59 million within the 2019 fiscal 12 months whereas staffing ranges have risen by about one-fifth, in response to knowledge collected by the Corps of Engineers.

California, which runs the nation’s largest dam security program, accounts for a lot of that acquire. It boosted its price range from $13 million to $20 million and the quantity of full-time workers from 63 to 77 following the failure of the Oroville dam spillway in 2017.

The scare at Oroville, the nation’s tallest dam, led to evacuation orders for practically 200,000 folks, though nobody was injured and the dam in the end held. An impartial investigation cited “a long-term systemic failure ” by regulators and the dam trade to acknowledge and deal with warning indicators.

California spent $1.1 billion repairing the Lake Oroville spillway, enacted new emergency plan necessities and launched a assessment of 93 different dams with related spillways.

In South Carolina, after greater than 70 dams failed following heavy rains in 2015 and 2016, the state tripled the personnel in its dam security program and ratcheted up spending from about $260,000 yearly to greater than $1 million.

But some states have continued to pare again their dam security applications. Thirteen states and Puerto Rico had been spending much less in 2019 than they did in 2011, and 11 states had fewer full-time positions of their applications.

The Association of State Dam Safety Officials says nearly each state faces a severe must pump extra cash and manpower into dam security applications.

“If you don’t have the staff to inspect a dam, or don’t have the authority to do that, you don’t know what the problems are,” stated the affiliation’s Ogden.

“If you are able to do the inspection but you can’t follow up, and you have dam owners who don’t have the resources to fix their dam, then ultimately you know what the problem is but you can’t get it addressed,” he added.

Many states face a quandary in relation to problematic personal dams after they can’t establish the house owners. Rhode Island’s two-person dam security workplace final 12 months listed 32 high- or significant-hazard dams with security issues whose house owners had been unknown.

“If we don’t know the owner, then we can’t take any action to order anybody to fix it,” stated David Chopy, chief of compliance and inspection for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

In some states, dams go uninspected because of exemptions in state legislation.

A 2013 Texas legislation exempts all dams on personal property with a capability of lower than 163 million gallons which might be rated important or low hazard and are situated exterior of metropolis limits in any county with fewer than 350,000 folks. As a outcome, about 45% of its roughly 7,200 dams are exempt from regulation.

Missouri performs security inspections on solely about 650 of its greater than 5,000 dams. That’s because state legislation exempts all dams which might be below 35 ft, used for agricultural functions or topic to federal regulation.

Former Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt tried to considerably increase the quantity of dams below state supervision after the mountaintop Taum Sauk Reservoir collapsed in December 2005, injuring a state park superintendent’s household. But the laws failed after some rural landowners expressed issues. Then the proposal quietly light away as new officers took over.

“Maybe it’s time to take a look at that again and make sure that our dams are safe,” stated Missouri state Rep. Tim Remole, who now leads the House committee overseeing dam security.


Until Angel’s dea-th in Nebraska this 12 months, the final deadly dam failure within the U.S. occurred on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 2006.

An earthen wall of the Kaloko Reservoir collapsed throughout heavy rains and despatched a wave of water dashing down a hillside. Seven folks – together with a pregnant lady – had been kil-led on Bruce Fehring’s property, together with his daughter, son-in-law and grandson.

Fehring, who wasn’t there on the time, received a telephone name from a neighbor saying one thing horrible had occurred. He was shocked by the scene.

“It took a while to register, and I went, ‘Oh my God, everything’s been washed away,’” Fehring recalled. “I mean, you have no idea the power of water (until) you see what it can do in a very short amount of time.”

Dam proprietor James Pflueger pleaded no contest to felony reckless endangerment and was sentenced to seven months of confinement and 5 years of probation. His property firm pleaded no contest to seven counts of man-slaughter. Prosecutors stated Pflueger had stuffed within the dam’s spillway whereas making an attempt to create space for a waterfront improvement.

The victims’ households and people whose property was broken, together with actress Bette Midler, agreed to a $25 million civil settlement. Though categorized by the state as low hazard on the time it failed, Kaloko Reservoir is now listed as a high-hazard facility in poor situation . It stays largely unrepaired.

That’s additionally the case with Lake Dunlap Dam, northeast of San Antonio. On a sunny morning in May, one of the 91-year-old dam’s corroded spillway gates immediately gave means. No one was harm within the rush of water, however scores of householders’ lakeside docks had been left excessive and dry, dealing with barren swaths of dried lakebed after the river retreated, leaving boats stranded.

The dam was the second hydroelectric facility alongside the river to fail inside the previous three years. The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority responded with plans to empty a series of 4 lakes because of issues their equally designed spillway gates additionally may fail.

But after property house owners sued, the river authority agreed in September to a short lived injunction delaying the plan for a 12 months. That may enable time to search out funding for the estimated $90 million to $210 million to restore the dams.

“This is something that communities and states all across the country are grappling with as we are reckoning with our aging infrastructure,” stated Tess Coody-Anders, a house owner close to Lake McQueeney, one of the dams slated to be drained.

“I hope that everyone will recognize that, like in our community, entire economies and ways of life have developed around what started out as a civil engineering project,” she added. “And you can’t take that away.”


Lieb reported from Jefferson City, Missouri; Casey from Concord, New Hampshire; and Minkoff from Washington, D.C.


Associated Press writers Eric Gay in San Antonio and Caleb Jones in Honolulu contributed to this report.

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