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Kate Zerrenner headshot

U.S. Water Infrastructure Has One Dam Big Problem

As the recent catastrophe in Michigan has shown, our nation’s water infrastructure is bending under the pressure, and in many places, it’s breaking.
By Kate Zerrenner
Water Infrastructure

While most of the world remains at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, the impacts of climate change have continued unabated. With the official start of hurricane season starting today, June 1, there is rising concern about disaster relief in these uncertain times. Unfortunately, our nation’s water infrastructure is bending under the pressure, and in many places, it’s breaking.

Michigan shows how water infrastructure is going awry

Case in point is Michigan, where privately-owned two dams recently failed after several days of heavy rains. Both dams were built in 1925, and within the next five years, 80 percent of Michigan’s dams will have reached their intended design life. The two dams had repeatedly failed to meet federal dam safety requirements and had lost their licenses in 2018.

The failures of those dams in Michigan reflect how the oversight of dam safety and water infrastructure is a smorgasbord of rules and regulations. State agencies regulate the bulk of the nation’s dams, of which about 65 percent are privately owned. Maintenance and upgrades are the responsibility of the owners, and the owners and local emergency management officials must handle any emergency, like the catastrophic failures in Michigan. Only about 10 percent of U.S. dams are federally regulated. Every state bar one has a dam safety program, through which they regulate dams in their jurisdiction. Many of the dam safety programs are understaffed and underfunded—Michigan’s program only has two staffers to inspect the safety of more than 1,000 dams in the state.

Couple that with the fact that Fourth National Climate Assessment noted that annual precipitation has increased 15 percent since 1960, and winter and spring precipitation are projected to increase up to 30 percent by the end of this century. “Imagine,” Shana Udvardy, climate resilience analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists told me, “these dams were designed with maximum flood capacity and spillway based on conditions from 95 years ago and were not updated even to today’s climate conditions even though they had multiple warnings, and you get a picture of how unsafe these dams really were.”

Coastal areas and hurricanes impose their challenges

Inland dams near rivers and other waterways that are predicted to increase in the number of flooding events under climate change are only part of the challenge. As we head into hurricane season—which is predicted to be above average in 2020—states often in the path of hurricanes will have high winds to add to the stress of flooding threats.

Of the eight states plus Puerto Rico that are most often in the bullseye of Atlantic storms, two—Texas and North Carolina—have the most number of high hazard dams, meaning high risk of loss of human life if they fail. Those two states follow Missouri, which takes the top spot. Both Texas and North Carolina have been battered by category 4 hurricanes in the within the past three years and infrastructure took a hit in both places, underscoring the need for more upgraded and more resilient water infrastructure. Neither state is guaranteed to miss out on this year’s hurricane season.

The ongoing pandemic will only exacerbate compound climate risks like those associated with hurricanes. Public health responses to hurricanes and flooding are compromised and stretched thin and could have additional impact on the economic pressures confronting communities that are already stressed. Like hurricanes and other natural disasters, the pandemic hits the most vulnerable communities, which in turn will be less able to quickly rebound from the effects.

Resilient infrastructure is a must

The solution will require involvement of all the interested parties: state and federal government and the private sector. “The private sector has a critical role to design, build, repair, and maintain infrastructure,” Udvardy said. “But as the Michigan tragedy shows, this will not likely happen without more stringent state and federal authority and regulations.”

Some advocates have suggested including water infrastructure investments in any future pandemic recovery money, creating jobs while shoring up infrastructure, much the way the Recovery Act did during the last recession. Some regulatory changes could help open the way for more public and private investment into smarter, more sustainable infrastructure, targeting especially vulnerable communities.

For example, Congress could increase funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Pre-Disaster Hazard Mitigation Program grants. Creating a transparent, reliable pipeline for these grants is a cost-effective strategy to enable communities, governments, and developers to reduce the impact of flooding when it happens. According to the National Institute of Building Sciences the benefits of acquiring and demolishing building exposed to riverine flooding outweighs the costs 7 to 1, for a total of $82 billion saved. The bottom line is: Investing in safe, resilient upgrades and infrastructure now will prevent the incalculable loss of money and lives if we fail to do so.

Image credit: John Gibbons/Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner