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.

avatar

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Des Moines.

More Des Moines stories

No stories could be found

Des Moinespostcard

Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Des Moines.