In light of the recent flood in Houston, it?s important to consider the state of 1,900 of the 100,000 dams in the U.S: they?re about to break.
The barrier across what used to be Lake Senneca in New Jersey was one of them until last August. ?I was standing there and it was shaking as if there was an earthquake,? says Ron Pietranowicz, a member of the neighborhood association that now owns the dam. ?Then the dam gave way right in the middle. Within an hour, the entire lake had emptied out.?
Fortunately, no houses were in the path of the water and there was no loss of life. Now there is only a large muddy pit with weeds growing out of it where the 20 acre lake used to be. Jetties stick out into empty air. The estimate to reconstruct the dam is $500,000.
In the past 2 years, 71 dams have completely given way, as reported to the National Performance of Dams Program at Stanford University. There were an additional 1,031 ?dam incidents? where the structures were damaged.
Many experts believe it?s only a matter of time before a dam failure leads to significant loss of life. ?We don?t want to be alarmist, but you could say this is a disaster waiting to happen,? says Lori Spragens, director of the Association of Dam Safety Officials. ?People have no idea they might be living in the path that water would take if a dam gave way and they can?t imagine the power of the water that would be unleashed if a dam failed.?
About 58 percent of U.S. dams are privately owned, often by lakeshore or neighborhood associations, sometimes by corporations or even individuals. Owners frequently delay spending money on dam maintenance. ?The lack of funding for upgrades has become a serious national problem, especially within the private sector,? according to Spragens. ?The rehabilitation of aging dams is a major concern.?
The storm that destroyed the Lake Senneca dam came only a year after Hurricane Floyd caused 3 other New Jersey dams to give way in 1999, and damaged another 21. ?We had to immediately dispatch emergency inspection teams to 53 dams,? says John Moyle, head of the dam safety division at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
In 1977, 39 people died after the Taccoa Falls dam in Georgia gave way. Five years earlier, 125 people died in West Virginia when the Buffalo Creek dam burst. The biggest dam break in U.S. history was in 1889, when the South Fork Dam in Pennsylvania broke without warning, killing 2,209 people.
Moyle?s office is going to court in New Jersey to demand the removal of several man-made lakes because dam owners refuse to bring them up to state safety standards. ?We obtain orders to drain maybe 10 lakes a year,? he says.
Different states have different safety standards for dams. New Jersey inspects all dams over 5 feet tall, but Missouri only regulates dams of 35 feet or more. ?Thirty five feet is a mighty high dam,? says Marty McCann, director of the National Dam Performance Program.
?Unfortunately, the one thing that would catch the attention of policymakers would be a major dam failure,? says Spragens.
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