WASHINGTON, DC – The failure of two aging Michigan dams this week has focused attention on the urgent safety threat high-hazard dams pose to communities nationwide.  U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) says the Michigan dam failures should be another wakeup call and that Congress must boost dam infrastructure improvement funds to protect the public, mitigate risk, and prevent future catastrophic failures.

“Unsafe dams are a looming threat that the federal government can’t afford to ignore.  Failure to repair and modernize deficient dams will only lead to dam failure.  Thousands of aging dams across the country were built decades ago, and since that time, communities and businesses have sprung up downriver.  Now the federal government must do its part to help protect public safety.  Last year, the Trump Administration spent more U.S. taxpayer dollars on presidential golf outings than it did on high-hazard dam safety grants.  Congress needs to step up because failing to invest in dam safety could precipitate a serious disaster,” said Senator Reed, who sent a letter in March urging Appropriators to provide $60 million for the High Hazard Potential Dam Rehabilitation Grant program in fiscal year 2021, a $50 million increase over the previous year.

Like other key infrastructure, dams deteriorate over time and deferred maintenance can accelerate deterioration and cause dams to be more susceptible to failure.

Aging dams present a growing risk in states across the country.  According to a 2019 analysis by the Associated Press, at least 1,688 dams across the United States are identified as “high-hazard” and are in poor or unsatisfactory condition in 44 states and Puerto Rico.  The AP’s two-year investigation found that Georgia led the nation with nearly 200 high-hazard dams in unsatisfactory or poor condition.  North Carolina had the second most risky dams in the nation with 168, followed by Pennsylvania with 145 troubled dams, and Mississippi with 132 high-hazard dams that are in poor or unsatisfactory condition. 

The report also found that Rhode Island had 38 high-hazard dams in poor and unsatisfactory condition.

High hazard potential dams are those dams where failure or mis-operation is probable to cause loss of human life and property damage and endanger population centers and ecosystems, especially in periods of extreme weather and flooding.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the federal government “reported owning 3% of the more than 90,000 dams listed in the National Inventory of Dams (NID), including some of the largest dams in the United States. The majority of NID-listed dams are owned by private entities, nonfederal governments, and public utilities. Although states have regulatory authority for over 69% of NID-listed dams, the federal government plays a key role in dam safety policies for both federal and nonfederal dams.”

To help prevent catastrophic and costly dam failures nationwide, Senator Reed authored and passed key elements of the High Hazard Potential Small Dam Safety Act of 2016.  This bipartisan initiative, cosponsored by U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), authorized up to $60 million a year in federal grant assistance for the rehabilitation and repair of non-federal high hazard potential dams nationwide.  The Reed-Capito dam safety provision was included in the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN Act; P.L. 114-322). 

However, the Trump Administration has sought to zero out funding for the program and has only agreed to fund it at a fraction of that level.  Last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awarded $10 million in Rehabilitation of High Hazard Potential Dams (HHPD) grants, authorized by Reed’s law to improve the safety of dams that were not built or maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers or other federal agencies. 

“Rhode Island has over 660 dams, some that were built over a century ago.  Many dams still play important roles with respect to our water supply, flood control, recreation, and other community uses, but others no longer serve their original purpose.  As we face greater flood risk due to climate change and urbanization, we need act to ensure that dams are not increasing the risk to lives, homes, and businesses,” said Senator Reed, who noted that Rhode Island received $169,542 in new federal dam safety funding last year as a result of the law he wrote to rehabilitate, repair, or remove high hazard potential dams. “President Trump failed to deliver on his promise of a $1 trillion infrastructure program, which should have included additional dam safety investments.  But it is not too late to do the right thing and start investing now.  There is no time like the present and this is a needed, cost-effective investment in protecting lives and property.  I urge the President to work with Congress to help shore up unsafe dams.”

According to ASDSO, the average age of the more than 90,000 dams in the U.S. is 57 years old.  The number of non-federal, high-hazard potential dams was more than 14,400 in 2019 and ASDSO estimates it would cost over $20 billion to rehabilitate the most critical non-federal dams.