By Michelle Ho
Historically, large federal investments in water infrastructure projects in the United States, such as dams, have facilitated economic and societal development and expansion. However, funding for such projects has in recent decades been rolled-back. Inadequate levels of funding for water infrastructure, particularly in regards to large structures like dams, are placing property, livelihoods, lives and our national economy at stake.
In the past, federal government initiatives enabled the construction of many large dams in the United States, primarily in the arid West. Across the nation, large-scale water infrastructure such as dams provided a multitude of services that we have come to expect, including power from hydroelectricity production, storage of water in reservoirs used for irrigation and urban supply, and industrial use, providing flood control for populations along the river, securing navigational pathways along rivers and containing harmful waste products resulting from metal, mineral and other mining processes. However, federal investments in large water infrastructure projects have largely been curtailed over the past few decades.
In the current presidential election, there has been little discourse on plans for investment in the future of water management and water infrastructure in the U.S. and much needed maintenance and upgrades. This is despite the American Water Works Association’s estimation that an investment of at least $1 trillion is required over the next 25 years to merely maintain current services.
Little is mentioned by the two main candidates running for president in this year’s election. Hillary Clinton’s website has a page on fixing infrastructure highlighting roads, bridges, transport, internet, airports and air spaces, and energy. Donald Trump’s webpage does not mention infrastructure and while he has stated that he will spend twice as much as Hillary Clinton on infrastructure, there is no detailed plan outlining how the money would be acquired or spent. Neither of the first two presidential debates raised the issue of coordinating water infrastructure investment across the nation.
Water infrastructure was not always relegated to the back seats of political discourse. Iconic water infrastructure projects such as the Hoover Dam grew from federal government initiatives. The Hoover Dam was approved by President Calvin Coolidge, dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and named after President Herbert Hoover in the 1930s. However, federal government spending on game-changing water infrastructure projects were largely curtailed during the Carter administration in the ‘70s. When adjusted for depreciation, the U.S. now makes no net investment in public infrastructure. In this day and age, federal investments in large infrastructure projects like the awe-inspiring Hoover Dam are debatable, but investments in dams are still greatly needed in order to merely maintain these structures and ensure their safety.
Insufficient funding for dams puts the health and safety of U.S. citizens at risk. Take a moment to remember the 2,209 people who lost their lives in Johnstown, Pa., in 1889 when the South Fork Dam failed and imagine a similar scenario of flood control levees or dams failing in other cities (e.g. Folsom Dam near Sacramento, Calif., Lewisville Lake Dam near Dallas, Texas). Also of concern is the risk of dam failure leading to cascading failures of critical infrastructure such as nuclear power stations. Such scenarios have drawn comparisons with Fukushima in terms of the potential for destruction.
We can be somewhat assured by the fact that many of the large dams in the U.S. such as the Hoover Dam in Nevada and the Addicks and Baker dams near Houston, Texas, which gained some notoriety earlier this year during the Houston floods, are owned and carefully monitored by federal agencies. Federal agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers generally have sufficient funding to monitor and address dam safety issues. The creeping safety issue for dams, rarely mentioned in public or political discourse, are linked to state, public utilities or privately owned dams, which make up over 97 percent of dams in the U.S.
Rules for dam safety vary from state to state and range from thorough sets of laws and regulations to non-existent legal structures, such as in Alabama, where there is no legal recognition of dam safety requirements. Across the country, each state dam safety inspector is, on average, responsible for the monitoring of over 200 dams, and this stretching of resources certainly contributed to the American Society of Civil Engineers awarding U.S. dams a grade of “D” in 2013. Unfortunately, the risks of multiple small dams failing are all too real: Over 30 small dams around Charleston, S.C., failed during a single storm last year, exacerbating flood damage and increasing the risk to life and property.
Encouragingly, there have been some moves towards addressing this issue, with the Senate recently passing a bill enabling small dam owners to apply for grants to upgrade high-hazard dams. The bill has yet to pass the House of Representatives. It is here that citizens have the opportunity to press their representatives on, at the very least, maintaining if not improving, dams and dam safety through adequate funding of dam safety programs.
In this political cycle, in addition to the big, headline-grabbing issues like jobs, education, gun violence, international relations, etc., it is incumbent on U.S. voters to also consider the items that keep the country operating. This includes the invisible and often forgotten issue of maintaining and addressing aging infrastructure that includes taking care of around 74,000 dams across the country.
Michelle Ho is a postdoctoral research scientist at the Columbia Water Center and is working on the America’s Water project that is researching ways to inform a strategic plan for managing future water use in the U.S.