Unsafe Dams Threaten Communities Nationwide

There are few things as scary as a dam failing in the middle of the night, with vulnerable communities just downstream. But that’s exactly what happened last week in Massachusetts. Luckily nobody was harmed when the 300 year old dam in Freetown breached, but it is a sober reminder of the threat unsafe dams pose to thousands of communities across the country.

“Dams across the state are living on borrowed time, and many of our communities are at risk,” Brian Graber, Northeast regional director of river restoration for American Rivers, told the Boston Herald. “These dams were built decades to centuries ago and many of them, perhaps most, no longer serve the function that they were built to provide. Closing our eyes to the problem doesn’t make it disappear. The most cost-effective, permanent way for communities to solve the problems of unsafe dams is to remove them.”

American Rivers plays a lead role removing unsafe dams in Massachusetts and nationwide. And it is critical work. Just look at these alarming numbers from the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) —

  • There are more than 87,000 dams currently under state regulation nationwide
  • 10,127 have been classified as high hazard, meaning they pose a serious threat to human life if they should fail
  • Of those high hazard dams, 1,333 have been identified as structurally deficient or unsafe
  • The average dam inspector in the US is responsible for more than 400 dams. The ASDSO recommends that each inspector is responsible for fewer than 50 dams.

Many Americans live in the shadow of high hazard dams — some of which are structurally unsafe — and don’t even know it.  Most states don’t require that people are notified if they live within a dam failure inundation zone, and evacuation plans in the event of a dam failure are rarely well-publicized.

Many state dam safety offices are under-funded, and there are inconsistencies across states. Consider that in some states, such as Missouri, a 34-foot high structure isn’t even considered a dam. Alabama doesn’t even have a dam safety program and doesn’t track the number of dams in the state. In Rhode Island, there is one dam safety inspector for all of the state’s 600 dams. Many dams in America have outlived their usefulness, and about 10 percent have no known owner.

The American Society of Civil Engineers grades the nation’s infrastructure on a regular basis. Dams have repeatedly received a D.

Armed with such statistics, communities across the country are finding that removing many of these dangerous structures is often the safest, most cost effective way of fixing the problem. Getting rid of these relics not only removes a hazard to the community, but can also provide other benefits including natural flood protection, improved water quality, and wildlife habitat.

In the wake of the near-disaster in Massachusetts last week, it is time for dam owners to take personal responsibility and recognize their own liability. Obsolete dams should be removed before they become hazards.