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America's Dams Are A Disaster Movie In The Making

On the heels of a spate of evacuations and flooding related to America's aging dams, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. While America as a whole received an alarming D+, dams were even worse with a grade of D. Nearly a fifth (17 percent) of America's dams were identified as having high-hazard potential.

A Brief Background

Issued every four years, the report depicts the condition of America's infrastructure by assigning a letter grade based on need for investment and physical fitness.

Early this year the town of Montello, Nevada, found itself literally underwater after a heavy rain and unseasonably warm weather causing snow-melt overloaded a section of the Twentyone Mile Dam. The Dam gave way, causing homes to be abandoned. Flood waters from Nevada even flowed across state lines into Utah.

A massive hole was discovered in California's Oroville Dam, the tallest dam in the U.S., causing an enormous evacuation of nearly 200,000 people. Experts estimate repairs could cost as much as $200 million.

The 'High-Hazard' Potential

While Nevada's dam was listed as low hazard, the Oroville Dam was listed as high hazard, meaning its failure would likely cause a loss of life. The ASCE says that as the population grows, the number of high-hazard potential dams increases.

The average age of the country's dams is now 56 years, with the number of high-hazard potential dams up to 15,500. Of these, the ASCE says 14 percent or more are now deficient.

Estimates for the rehabilitation of U.S. dams range from $45 billion to $60 billion. Of the $45 billion in investment the ASCE proposes, a paltry $5.6 billion is provided. Without proper investment, real-life drama such as that seen in Nevada and California this year may only intensify.

As the ASCE put it in their report, "Many dams are not expected to safely withstand current predictions regarding large floods and earthquakes." The report also highlights many of the more than 75 percent of America's dams that will be more than 50 years old by the year 2025 were built using "less-stringent design criteria" for low-hazard potential dams.

Next Steps

The results are both a stark warning and a potential catalyst for action.

President Trump reportedly spent Wednesday with his team calling for an outline on how to achieve his $1 trillion infrastructure spending initiative. Not much is known of the details, but Trump's proposal would likely include a public-private partnership, state contributions and borrowed funds while giving states 90 days after receiving funds to begin work on projects.

Meanwhile, Maryland Democrat John Delaney has touted a plan that involves lowering corporate tax rates to encourage repatriation of corporate cash held overseas. That money would form the bulk of the government's portion of the $1 trillion package. Institution of a so-called "tax holiday" would almost certainly find support from the White House, as Trump has expressed support for it on many occasions.

The release of the ASCE report should undoubtedly put some wind in the sails of Trump's push to get infrastructure spending through Congress once health care and tax reforms are addressed.

Image Credit: By California Department of Water Resources - http://www.dwr.water.ca.gov/newsroom/photo/facilities-swp/oroville_dam.jpg, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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