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Last month, the collapse of the Edenville and Sanford Dams in Midland County, Michigan gained national attention after displacing almost 10,000 people and causing widespread property and infrastructure damage.
Tragically, the Midland County dams are only two of hundreds that have collapsed across the country in the last few decades. Dams across Michigan and the country have been slowly deteriorating with many warning signs being willfully ignored. The latest report by the American Society of Civil Engineers assigned America’s dams a grade of D+ due to the 15,498 dams that have been identified as a high hazard risk across the country with little being done to improve them. As dams continue to age and weather a changing climate, the number of high hazard dams increases every year.
Without addressing the key infrastructure, policy, and funding concerns that are at the core of failing dams across the country, the tragedy of the Midland County Dam failures are bound to be repeated in the future.
Patchwork Regulatory Structure
For many years, concerns had been raised about the condition of the Edenville dam. When the private company Boyce Hydro Power took ownership of the dam in 2004, they were aware that the dam would be unable to withstand large floods like the one that led to its collapse. Yet, Boyce Hydro Power was non-compliant in addressing these concerns in the 14 years that it owned the dam, facing no repercussions from government agencies. In 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission finally revoked the company’s license to operate the dam, turning over regulation to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. Due to these changes in oversight, however, the problem continued to remain unaddressed and led to the dam’s eventual collapse.
Dams across the country similarly operate under a patchwork of ownership and regulation which can make addressing crucial issues difficult. Dam regulation standards can differ greatly among states and between federal agencies as well with 69% of dams across the country being regulated by state agencies and 5% being regulated by federal agencies according to the USACE National Inventory of Dams.
More streamlined government oversight can help shape a more effective regulatory process for dealing with safety issues regarding dams.
“Private sponsorship, bidding, and contracting should be incentivized and encouraged, in an effort to repurpose public funds to more critical spending areas, if and only if the disjointed, misaligned, bureaucratic oversight process is streamlined to designate power to collaborative, interdisciplinary teams with clearly denoted mission statements, agendas, and jurisdiction,” according to CSS research associate Julie Arbit.
“It’s time for the executive branch to streamline its processes and consolidate to stricter oversight, allowing the outsourcing of project funding to successful markets like utilities and recreation. Under that paradigm, infrastructure failures will not only occur less frequently, but the mechanics of liability and responsibility will allow for faster, more cost-effective responses when they do occur at all”
According to a report by EGLE, around 67% of Michigan's dams have reached their intended design life of fifty years and 271 of Michigan’s dams are over a hundred years old. The Edenville Dam was no exception to the crisis of aging infrastructure, being 96 years old when it collapsed.
Dams across the country similarly continue to age with the average age of a dam being 57 years old. Many of these dams were built with outdated standards and were not meant to endure the climate they find themselves in now.
Funding and intervention efforts need to be implemented to address aging infrastructure issues. In 2016, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act was signed into law to authorize dam rehabilitation and repair across the country for non-federal, high-hazard dams. The Association of State Dam Safety estimated that the total cost to rehabilitate dams would exceed $70 billion, but not enough government funding has been directed towards this effort. In 2020, FEMA was appropriated $10 million to rehabilitate high hazard dams nationwide. However, fixing aging dams in Michigan alone would cost more than $255 million according to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Climate Change and Record Floods
The EPA reports that the average annual precipitation in most of the Midwest has increased by 5-10% in the last fifty years. In Midland County, record rainfalls are what ultimately pushed the Edenville and Sanford dams over their capacity limits, leading to disastrous flooding. Regulators were aware before the dam failures that the dams would not be able to withstand such heavy rainfall. As climate change continues to incite heavy precipitation across the country, dams need to be re-evaluated to be able to withstand these extreme climatic events.
Building more robust Emergency Action Plans and ensuring compliance can help prevent more natural disasters in the future. Emergency Action Plans help dam owners identify conditions that could lead to dam failures and the necessary precautions to take to avoid such catastrophes. Currently, only 74% of high hazard potential dams in the U.S. have an emergency action plan according to the USACE National Inventory of Dams.
By: Abha Panda, CSS Communications Assistant