Our crumbling infrastructure


As a culture, we are fantastic at living in the moment. In the event we plan for the future at all, it is typically with ourselves and immediate family in mind. I do this too – I try to focus on things I have a tenuous degree of control over. The big questions of impending doom related to climate change and infrastructure failures are delegated to professionals – the government, private companies – and activists. It doesn’t seem to be working very well.

You’ve probably heard of the Oroville Dam clusterfuck. It’s pretty bad, and there’s more to come:

According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO), the U.S. had 173 dam failures and 587 incidents between January 1st, 2005 and June 2013. (“Incidents” are defined as “episodes that, without intervention, would likely have resulted in dam failure.”) A majority of those failures were attributed to extreme weather.

Lori Spragens, executive director of the ASDSO, told Gizmodo that it’s possible there are more incidents that have gone unnoticed or unreported. There’s no across the board rule about reporting incidents, she said. “It just depends on the state. Some states only regulate high-hazard dams, some regulate all three levels of hazard,” low, significant, and high, according to the ASDSO.

A 2013 report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States’ overall infrastructure a letter grade of “D+,” meaning poor. The score was even lower for the 84,000 U.S. dams, which received a “D.” (It’s also worth noting that the average age of the failed dams was 62 years old, just 10 years older than the national average.)

Out of all those dams, the most immediately worrisome are the 2,000 that have been categorized as “deficient high-hazard” dams. High-hazard dams are anticipated to cause loss of human life if they fail. Many of these were initially built as low-hazard dams, but as populations grew and development proceeded, people have increasingly found themselves in the danger zone.

You might be thinking, “holy shit, this sounds like it would be really expensive fix.” If so, you’re right!

As politicians campaign on rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, we’ve mostly been engaged in half-measures that require little sacrifice. As one of his final acts as president, Obama authorized the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, which allocated $12 billion dollars to a range of projects related to the nation’s water supply. But only a portion of the money is intended to improve the federal government’s high-hazard dams. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates it would take over $57 billion to rehabilitate all of the nation’s dams.

It’s yet to be seen what our new president will do—the infrastructure plan he floated before the election would rely on tax incentives for private companies—but the clock is ticking.

You might be thinking “hmm, maybe it’d be better to use the wall money for something like this.” That’s an idea I only grudgingly think about, largely from the perceptive that the wall idea is asinine and the money could be put to better use. I don’t like dams. However, I guess I’m more agnostic to fixing pre-existing dams, the failure of which would endanger lives. But maybe we should just take them down. In a very recent article in Science FindingsGordon Grant, professor at the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, concluded that there is

sound empirical basis for dam removal as a rational, workable strategy to improve fluvial connectivity, reduce environmental hazards associated with aging infrastructure, and promote recolonization by fish and other aquatic organisms in previously blocked reaches.

Sounds good to me. But one drawback of the study is that it acknowledges there is limited data on large dam removal:

Unfortunately, we don’t have enough examples of big dam removals to get a good sense of the full range of possible responses.

Moreover, there is no discussion of impacted human communities downstream. As a rabid, human-hating environmentalist, it’s admittedly not the most important thing to me. But it would be essential for dam removal proponents to address this in ways that people care about (i.e. how humans are affected).

My views aside, we’ll probably neglect the issues at hand until juuuuust before it’s too late. Then, we’ll throw money and technology at the problems in order to, again, kick the can further down the road.

 

Comments

  1. brucegee1962 says

    “juuuuust before it’s too late”? How about just after its too late — as in, after a dam collapses and a bunch of people drown?

    Nah, what am I thinking? When the I-35 bridge collapsed in Minnesota in 2007, did that lead to a big surge of bridge-fixing across the country? It did not. Maybe after two bridges, a dam, and a power grid all go down? Two power grids? Anybody want to guess?

  2. kestrel says

    Haha. And let me tell you, as a person who is working very hard to get a dam fixed, that we keep getting turned down for funds because our dam *won’t kill enough people* if it fails. In addition the Army Corps of Engineers has been throwing monkey wrenches into the works to slow things down.

    Our dam actually provides habitat for an endangered fish, the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, because it’s very high up in the mountains and it’s cold water, so not only does our local economy depend on it (it’s a state park) but so do the fish.

    We have been rated as “high hazard” but even so, no one seems very interested in fixing it. It is indeed interesting how no one wants to be pro-active… they all prefer to be reactive.

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