Current Affairs

Dammed and Damned

Amid a host of other disasters, the collapse of two dams in Northern Michigan may have seemed like a relatively minor apocalypse. But, as dam expert Varsha Venkatasubramanian points out, what we saw in Michigan is only the beginning.

What happened in Michigan, and why?

In May, after unprecedented rainfall in Midland County, Michigan, the Tittabawassee River flooded, reaching almost 35 feet. Roads were drowned and bridges closed. That was bad enough, but then on May 19 the Edenville and Sanford Dams failed completely. As water inundated homes and Governor Whitmer declared an emergency, thousands of residents were ordered to evacuate. Flood water is often unsafe, but this water was worse than most: Midland is home to an extensive toxic cleanup site around a large Dow chemical plant, meaning that the environmental and human consequences of these dam failures may yet be catastrophic. Midland’s flood disaster should force Americans to confront our aging, crumbling dams across the country, and our limited financial and legal tools available to repair them. 

Less than half of Michigan’s 2,600 dams are regulated by the state, and three-quarters are under private ownership. Of Michigan’s dams, 140 have been designated “high hazard potential,” and many of those are privately-owned and not regulated at all. (The failed Edenville and Sanford dams are, unsurprisingly, privately-owned.)

In 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) revoked Edenville Dam’s license because of a “longstanding failure to increase the project’s spillway capacity to safely pass flood flows, as well as its failure to comply with its license.” Essentially FERC found that Edenville was not taking adequate precautions to prevent failure due to flooding. The agency had attempted since 2004 to convince Boyce Hydro Power—the owner of the Edenville and Sanford Dams—to upgrade the Edensville dam by adding a bigger spillway and to provide protection against damage from overtopping (when water spills over the top of a dam, a precursor to dam failure). Boyce Hydro Power did not comply. Instead, Boyce told FERC that it would sell the dam to someone else who could put in the money to fix it. This dragged on until, just as FERC’s revocation indicated could happen, the dam failed due to flooding.

At a news conference, Governor Whitmer said, “We need to be very clear…this is a privately-owned dam. We can talk about the merits of whether private companies should own critical infrastructure. I don’t think they should.” In this, Whitmer is exactly right: Ending private control of dams and other waterworks should be the end goal of state and federal water infrastructure policy.

As we learn more about Michigan’s and America’s dams and their history, it becomes clear that the key problem is enforcement of safety regulations, not knowledge. When it comes to enforcing safety standards, the actual consequences for dams that don’t meet these standards are little more than a slap on the wrist. The disaster in Michigan surprised residents, but it didn’t shock civil engineers or hydrologists, who have warned that climate change and increased runoff from development has been putting hazardous pressure on poorly-maintained dams. What happened in Michigan can and will happen to many other aging dams across the country if we don’t take action soon. We know exactly how dams fail, how they hurt the environment, the dangers they pose to human life, what the alternatives are, and how much it will cost to fix them. The problem is that we barely act on the information we have.

What is a dam and why do they matter?

The damming of rivers and streams has been integral to the economic and population growth of the United States. Dams reduce flood hazard, provide irrigation, generate hydroelectricity, and augment the supply of water for a region, among other things. Dams are a colossal presence in the United States: We have over 2.5 million of them, and they divert and hold back major rivers, creating vast artificial lakes. Water from these dams has transformed deserts into oases, satiated the thirst of millions of Americans, and powered production all across the country. However, dams have hurt the salmon population, flooded large forests, and displaced thousands of people.

Dams fragment watersheds. A flowing river carries sediment and nutrients downstream and allows flora and fauna to move freely. But when a dam is built, it warms and slows the water. The reservoir behind the dam fills up with silt and sediment, and begins to populate with lake flora and fauna instead of the former river life. Layer after layer, the sediment settles in. By keeping sediment upstream, the dam accelerates erosion below. Dams can basically starve a current, driving it to devour more soil from the riverbed and banks downstream. The sun is also a problem. While sediment reduces reservoir storage by building up on the reservoir floor, the sun’s heat evaporates water from the surface. In many cases, the sun can evaporate more water than a reservoir can store. This is one of the reasons why the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers no longer reach the ocean and why alluvial groundwater is shrinking rapidly. 

Another threat from dams is climate change. It may come as a surprise, but dams manage to pollute the air. Reservoirs are stagnant lakes that, as I mentioned before, usually kill off much of the native ecosystem. As water fills a reservoir behind the dam, what was previously dry land covered in plants and animals becomes the bottom of a lake. Whole valleys worth of trees are killed in the process. Bacteria in the water decompose the plants, generating carbon dioxide and methane. This is why dams are a critical source of greenhouse gases—the world’s 52,000 largest dams are responsible for over 4 percent of the total warming from human activities. Reservoirs contribute 25 percent of human-caused methane emissions, the largest single source in the world. And as climate change accelerates, American dams will struggle even more to deal with unprecedented drought-and-deluge cycles that are more dramatic and traumatic than they were a half century ago when these dams were constructed. Dams that were designed to control floods might actually make these new floods worse as they reduce the capacity of upstream watersheds to control and absorb the sudden impact of an extreme storm.

A brief history of American dams

Between 1920 and 1950, Americans built over 10,000 new dams, and 40,000 more between 1950 and 1980. Although we built the dams for a variety of reasons, and sometimes for no reason at all, their uses have consolidated. Originally, 13 percent of the largest dams in North America were built for flood control, 11 percent for irrigation, 10 percent for water storage and supply, 11 percent for hydropower (this number has decreased), 24 percent for other purposes such as recreation or navigation, and 30 percent for a mix of purposes. Today, dams are mainly used to store drinking water, and many fewer of them are used for hydropower and irrigation. Only 3 percent of dams are now hydropower facilities, and they only cover about 7 percent of American power demands.

Starting in the mid-19th century, Americans began to construct what Donald Worster calls the “greatest hydraulic society ever built in history.” This society was “coercive, monolithic, and hierarchical,” controlled by “a power elite based on the ownership of capital and expertise” leading to a “managerial relationship with nature.” In 1902, the United States Reclamation Service (now called the Bureau of Reclamation) was created to oversee the management of water resources. The architects of the Reclamation Service boasted the creation of a progressive agency that would bring democracy, freedom, and order to the West. In practice, this meant that the bureau built and supervised a variety of projects across the western United States that helped reconfigure arid land for human use. The purpose was never conservation, or genuine “resource management.” It was about making already wealthy farmers and settlers even richer, and concentrating powers in the hands of elites.

The Reclamation program was curiously public and private all at once. It promised water management on a scale larger than any private company or individual state had pursued before. The Roosevelt administration attempted and largely succeeded in gaining federal sovereignty over necessary lands and water rights, but much of the administration was left up to private ownership. As history professor Donald Pisani writes, the Newlands Reclamation Act “had a far closer relationship to the laissez-faire natural resource policies of the nineteenth century than to the ethic of a rationalized, planned economy.”

The private versus public dispute over water rights and water projects has been a constant in American history. There was no uniform system of land distribution during the colonial period, but with the first land ordinances during the late 18th and early 19th century, the federal government attempted to generate revenue, stimulate economic development, and rapidly transfer these public lands to private ownership. When the United States’ borders expanded, the Homestead Act of 1862 continued in this tradition by enabling thousands of (white) settlers with limited resources to become farm owners, but land was frequently concentrated in the hands of speculators. Water, unlike land, was generally common property, i.e., not privately-held, until the 19th century. But evolving water rights law had a large impact on the effort to adapt private law doctrines to the promotion of economic growth. As the American legal system built a system of private water right ownership, speculators concentrated control over water and land both, especially the West. Speculation was not limited to the West of course, privately dams in the East constantly obstructed navigation in the 19th century, and despite attempts at regulation, Congress would continue to issue permits for private dams, especially along the Mississippi. 

Private failures, public damage

America has had a long and tragic history of dam failures. In 1889, the South Fork Dam failed and over 20 million gallons of water rushed towards Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Most residents ignored the government’s warning and the flood killed 2,209 people. In 1928, the St. Francis Dam near Los Angeles collapsed. More than 400 people perished.

In Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner discusses the construction of some of the largest dams in the world by the Bureau of Reclamation. Reisner explains that “thanks to irrigation, thanks to the Bureau…states such as California, Arizona, and Idaho became populous and wealthy; millions settled in regions where nature, left alone, would have countenanced thousands at best; great valleys and hemispherical basins metamorphosed from desert blond to semi-tropic green.” The cost of these dams and other hydrological projects were staggering, and Reisner argues that the returns (in the form of hydroelectricity, water storage, or irrigation) are either pitiful or questionable at best. Today we have thousands of dams that never lived up to the aspirations people held for them, and some of them pose an immense danger for people and the environment. Reisner’s conclusion is simple but inspires worry: The hydraulic works of the West (and by extension across the nation) are bad, and our dependence upon them is almost irreversible. Our dedication to hydraulic development has always been a pointless struggle against nature, and continuing to build dams will just lead to further damage, more human vulnerability, and rising levels of greenhouse gases. What’s more, the cost of repairing or removing dams is immense and heavily politicized. Special interests have raised millions of dollars to push local politicians to subsidize their water projects. Although some dams fulfill the hopes of their planners (to develop, irrigate, and provide water and energy to all citizens), the indirect, delayed, and unexpected costs are high and usually go unheeded until it’s too late. Americans are too focused on short-term benefits, and few independent analyses have been conducted to examine exactly how these dams have performed compared to the high price tag.

What’s the problem with our dams (in Michigan and across the U.S.)?

Dams require a lot of upkeep. They’re inspected on three-, four-, or five-year cycles, but if there is a high potentiality of loss of life or property damage, the cycle is shorter. Most of the time, the dam owners (private entities) have the inspections completed by private consultants. In Michigan, these results are sent to Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. EGLE Dam Safety only does 20-40 inspections a year of state- or locally-owned dams, but the state receives around 200 consultant reports every year. Michigan also has lower-than-average staffing in dam safety and spends much less than other states. States spend, on average, around $695/dam in safety regulation, Michigan only spends about $374/dam.

Dam safety affects the environment, people, and property across borders, and failures cause problems across vast areas. Though the safety of dams is monitored by the FERC, dam owners are ultimately responsible for it. The private owners still must commit money and time to remove or repair hazardous dams. Or, they’re supposed to. They often don’t. Owners of non-revenue generating dams frequently choose not to save for maintenance and safety upgrades, creating safety hazards for downstream residents and the whole region’s environment and economy. Meanwhile, state and federal governments neither mandate nor fund repairs at the necessary levels, largely because they can’t find the money. Moving inspection burdens to private owners further endangers the public. It means relying on private owners to both have and spend the money for inspections inspection. In 2018, Michigan only received 82 percent of the inspection reports that were scheduled for high-hazard dams according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a 13 percent decrease from previous year. This means the state has no idea whether anyone has even taken a look at nearly one in five of its high-hazard dams.

Things are likely to get worse. Dams have a very low level of resilience and they cannot “recuperate” once there is major degradation. Repairs take decades, and failures are catastrophic. Before Sanford and Edenville, the Silver Lake Dam in Michigan failed in 2003 and caused over $100 million in damage. The Silver Lake Dam failure came right in the middle of repeated warnings to the owners of Sanford and Edenville. The previous owner of the Edenville Dam was notified as early as 1999 that the dam’s spillways needed to be increased to prevent a flood from overpowering it, and Boyce Power was notified again when they acquired the dam in 2004. They did next to nothing in response. Recently, the Four Lakes Task Force made a deal with Boyce Hydro to purchase Sanford Dam and a couple others in order to complete the repairs that Boyce Hydro claimed it could not “afford” to do, however this deal did not go through before the flood in May. After Boyce Hydro lost its license, the state took over regulating and inspecting  Edenville dam, but again the issue was a lack of funds for repairs.

In the citation against Boyce Power in 2018, FERC argued that the Edenville structure could not handle 50 percent of a probable maximum flood. Attempting to retain their license, Boyce Hydro argued that revoking the license would not improve public safety, because it would make the dam less attractive to potential buyers and ending power generation would kill the only real source of revenue that could be used to expand its spillway capacity. They also claimed that the “odds of a ‘probable maximum flood’ event occurring in the next 5 to 10 years is 5 to 10 in one million.” Either they were very unlucky, or their math was somewhat off, or we are living in unprecedented times.

Where do we go from here?

There is a seemingly willful ignorance and optimism in the United States toward the long-term risks posed by dams, especially privately-owned and disintegrating ones, and especially as exacerbated by climate change. Though engineers have focused heavily on safety in the past couple decades when building dams, after a dam is inaugurated neglect eventually takes over. Dam failures happen because not enough public or private resources are earmarked for upkeep. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave American dams and other water infrastructure a grade of D. States with budget crises and gridlock do not have enough dam safety officials, and like many of their dams, their officials are set up for failure. From 1872 to 2006, the U.S. Association of State Dam Safety has estimated that dam failures have killed 5,128 people. Instead of complying with safety regulations, private owners turn to litigation or lobbying against these rules. Others just sell or abandon their dams (11 percent of dams are classified as under indeterminate ownership).

In 2000, the landmark World Commission on Dams established key criteria and guidelines to manage, build, and remove dams—but the results were so challenging to water bureaucrats that the World Bank, which sponsored the commission, attempted to walk away from its conclusions. The WCD concluded that while “dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development,” in “too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment.” The WCD offered a few recommendations for developers, including: Development needs and objectives need to be transparently and clearly formulated, social and environmental aspects need to be given the same significance as economic and technical factors, all stakeholders should have the opportunity to participate in the decision making processes and public acceptance of decisions is key, entitlements for displaced and harmed peoples near a proposed project is a necessary precondition for construction; and downstream ecosystems should be maintained.

Moving forward

These dam failures in Michigan should encourage Americans to rethink our relationship to dams overall. Considering that so few of them provide hydroelectricity, their negative effects to the environment and climate change, and the risks to Americans who live downstream from them, it may be time to dismantle most of them entirely. There are viable alternatives to large and aging dams to fulfill our needs for water diversion and supply, flood control, and energy. A better future for American rivers and its citizens is one where America retains only those dams that meet safety standards and actually work efficiently when it comes to water supply or energy. This safer future also requires constant oversight of the dams that do stay up, because they are not immortal. In order to get to a point where no Americans are afraid of dams failing and flooding their communities, we need to first maximize the efficiency, greatly improve the operation, and reduce the environmental costs of our dams. Recognizing that dams don’t live forever means ensuring the oversight and funds to repair and decommission dams when necessary.

As we turn to these alternatives, the key step will be to implement greater oversight of dams, eventually turning away from privatization altogether. Although American policymakers have championed dams as  symbols of American technological might and progress for most of the 20th century, we no longer have any excuse to avoid the negative externalities. In a 2017 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers found that the average age of the over 90,000 dams in this country is 56 years. They estimated that almost $45 billion would be necessary to repair the increasing number of high-hazard potential dams. Given the inability of current regulatory agencies to ensure dam safety, repair, and eventual removal, Americans would need a major injection of public funds from state and federal governments into our nation’s dams. When it comes to ecological or environmental disasters, Americans have a relatively short attention span, but our nation’s aging dams require a widespread and vigorous response, or we’ll be completely unprepared for the catastrophic losses.


Cover image: The Oroville dam suffered a catastrophic breach in the 2017 California floods. Image via Wikimedia.

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