Invest in dam safety to protect people, property

Originally posted on :

simkins damWhen a Lexington County earthen dam sprung a leak this past week, threatening downstream homes, officials quickly went to work to shore up the dam and avoid a flooding disaster. But this problem could have been avoided if the state hadn’t slashed funding for dam safety inspections over the past several years. By cutting funds for inspectors, the state has taken a dangerous gamble on the roughly 2,400 dams across the state.

The 20-foot-high, 300-foot-long dam in the Irmo area is 60 years old and is considered a “high-hazard” dam, meaning that failure could cause loss of human life or major property damage.

The safety of dams often is taken for granted until a high-profile event reveals the associated risks. The failures of two dams in the Western United States in the 1970s caused dozens of deaths, hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and the loss of wildlife and habitat. Public reaction to these failures resulted in new laws addressing dam safety, and since that time there have been just a few dam failures in this country, with damage primarily in the form of property destruction and environmental degradation.

Since then, the lack of a high-profile event has created a sense of security with our nation’s dams, but the risks associated with unsafe dams have not been eliminated. The American Society of Civil Engineers emphasized this concern by giving dams nationwide a grade of D in their “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” — citing age, downstream development, dam abandonment and lack of funding for dam-safety programs. Even more troubling is that South Carolina ranks among the worst when it comes to state dam-safety programs.

Dams are not designed to last forever; their deterioration is inevitable. It is imperative that we take a proactive approach to dam safety now, before the next major failure occurs. This means we must have a complete inventory of dams and their safety conditions, and where significant safety risks occur we must ensure that the resources are available to either remove or repair the dam.

Dam removal has become a preferred option for many communities nationwide. Not only is removal often the cheapest option for addressing the problem and ensuring public safety, it also comes with added benefits: clean water, fish and wildlife, and river recreation all get a boost when a dam is torn down.

So many communities have embraced dam removal that our country will approach a significant milestone this year: the removal of the thousandth dam. This is why American Rivers has dubbed 2011 “The Year of the River,” celebrating the fact that local support for river restoration is at an all-time high.

When considering dam removal, each dam must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. We need to weigh the costs and benefits of keeping versus removing the leaking dam in Lexington County. But as officials look at possible long-term solutions, the cost-effective solution of removal should be a serious option.

And in order to ensure the safety of dams across South Carolina, the Legislature and the Department of Health and Environmental Control must fully fund the dam-safety program. Otherwise, unsafe dams will continue to be ticking time bombs that threaten downstream communities.