Jul 13, 2021 - News

The push to make our dams safer

Illustration of a concrete dam wall with water leaking through cracks in the shape of a dollar sign.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Thousands of dams across the country would be upgraded or repaired under a $26 billion safety bill introduced in Congress last week.

Why it matters: At least 1,680 dams across the U.S. pose potential risk of failure, an AP investigation found in 2019.

  • In Iowa, at least 19 dams are in poor or unsatisfactory condition, according to state data. Thousands of others are privately owned and their conditions have generally not been rated.

By the numbers: Iowa has more than 4,100 dams, many of which are 50 years or older. That's beyond their typical design lifespan, Jonathan Garton, a supervisor of the state Department of Natural Resources' Dam Safety Program, told us yesterday.

  • Dams are inspected based largely on their hazard potential.
  • About 100 are "high-hazard" dams — those with the greatest potential to kill people if they fail — that are inspected every two years.

Flashback: Delaware County's Lake Delhi Dam breached in 2010, flooding dozens of homes and businesses in nearby Monticello and causing millions of dollars in damage. There were no deaths.

  • Design and maintenance deficiencies, following heavy rains, contributed to the nearly 90-year-old dam's breach.
  • It was rebuilt in 2016 for $16 million.

Between the lines: Even if approved, the Twenty-First Century Dams Act will not fix all the problems.

  • U.S. dams are in need of almost $94 billion in upgrades over the next decade, according to a report released by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) this year.
  • Iowa was rated a "D" by ASCE. The group noted inspection and maintenance is often the responsibility of private owners, putting public safety largely in their hands.

⚠️ Of note: Glen Oaks Country Club has the only high-hazard dam in poor condition in Polk County, according to the DNR.

  • Yes, but: A recently completed rehabilitation project will soon upgrade the condition to satisfactory, Garton told Jason.

What's next: The congressional proposal has bipartisan support, but it still has a long way to go in the legislative process.

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