U.S. dams are in a sorry state

Daniel Ackerman Jun 26, 2024
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The U.S. has nearly 92,000 dams; the average age for a dam is 61 years. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. dams are in a sorry state

Daniel Ackerman Jun 26, 2024
Heard on:
The U.S. has nearly 92,000 dams; the average age for a dam is 61 years. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
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Heavy rains across the Midwest this week caused rivers to rise and severely damaged at least one dam in Southern Minnesota. That dam is more than a century old and was in need of repair before these rains, but the story is similar for thousands of aging dams across the country.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s dams a D grade on its latest infrastructure report card.

The Federal Government owns a few big, flashy dams you may have heard of. But “not all dams are Hoover Dam,” noted Lori Spragens, who heads the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

Over 90,000 in the U.S. aren’t Hoover Dam and most of them are privately owned — by energy companies, farmers and even the Boy Scouts of America.

“So a lot of people who don’t necessarily have the skillset to know how to take care of a dam,” Spragens said.

There aren’t many who do have that skillset relative to the need, according to Del Shannon with the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“There is no university program related to dam design or construction,” he said.

And anyway, fixing all those dams is expensive. Shoring up just the ones that could pose a risk to human life would cost $34 billion by one estimate. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act provided a couple billion for dam maintenance.

“It’s a great first step,” Shannon said. “I’m really super excited about that.”

But in an era of climate change and heavier rainstorms, he added that it’s a drop in the dam bucket.

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