Address the Safety of U.S. Dams

Americans pride themselves on being prepared for the worst: Earthquake proofing our houses, frequent car check-ups to thwart highway malfunctions, vaccinating our kids. Yet many of us are unaware of a risk that threatens some of our own communities: unsafe dams.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Infrastructure Report Card, 14,000 of the 84,000 dams across the United States are considered high-hazard dams. These are dams in which failure or mis-operation could result in loss of life. Many dams, which when built were considered low-hazard, are now aging and classified as high-hazard dams because of new commercial and residential development below the dam. Other dams may be considered high-hazard because they are inadequately maintained or they are not expected to safely withstand current predictions regarding large floods and earthquakes.

When the St. Francis Dam in Los Angeles County failed in 1928, the resulting flood took the lives of more than 400 people. Towns across Los Angeles and Ventura Counties — Saugus, Castaic, Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula, Saticoy, and Montalvo — were decimated. At the time, it was the second-greatest disaster in California history, preceded only by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Entire families were killed.

A year later, the State of California passed legislation to create the Division of Safety of Dams to ensure the welfare of dams across the state. Today, California has 1,594 dams, 1,248 of which are state-regulated, and of those, 684 are classified as “high-hazard potential.”

Safety inspections, emergency action plans, and public education and engagement can make a real difference for our communities.

For example, the San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River in Monterey County, California, was identified as likely to fail in the event of a credible earthquake or flood — threatening 1,500 homes and other buildings. So a public process began in 2006 to identify strategies to address this safety and environmental hazard. The dam was removed in 2015 — benefiting public safety while also enhancing recreation and habitat restoration.

The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that a staggering $21 billion investment is needed to repair 2,000 deficient and aging high-hazard dams across the country. A pragmatic solution might be to invest in safety inspections and repairs of existing dams, and to tear-down those that don’t pass muster as was done in Monterey County.

In addition to the possible and tragic loss of life and property, the environmental impacts of a dam disaster are significant — washing out and potentially polluting drinking water supplies, crops, wildlife habitat, and recreation areas. The resulting economic consequences can be disastrous. The St. Francis Dam disaster destroyed 900 houses, many bridges and roads, and 24,000 acres of farmland.

In July of this year, thanks to the leadership of Rep. Steve Knight (R-Calif.), the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill to create a national memorial and monument at the site of the St. Francis Dam.

“It is important to educate the public and honor the individuals who perished in the St. Francis Dam disaster,” Knight said. We couldn’t agree more.

We urge the U.S. Senate to follow the House’s lead and make the St. Francis Dam bill law. Moreover, policy-makers nationwide should acknowledge the threat posed today to communities across the country by unsafe dams, and take a closer look at policies that might prevent another senseless tragedy before it occurs.

Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director and president of the Community Hiking Club and Alan Pollack is president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. Dianne and Alan have led historical hikes for the public of the St. Francis Dam disaster site.

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