The High Cost of High-Hazard Dams

ASCE-report-cardIt is well known that our nation’s infrastructure is in desperate need of repair or replacement. In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ACSE) 2017 Report Card has given our country’s infrastructure an overall grade of D+. Dams are a part of that critical infrastructure, and they have received an abysmal D grade from ASCE. We have over 90,000 dams in our country, and the average age of these dams is 56 years old. Considering that dams built 50 years ago were not designed for current standards and usually have inadequate spillway capacity, these numbers are concerning.

Even more alarming, America has nearly 15,500 high-hazard dams, with over 2,170 of these being deemed deficient. A dam is rated high-hazard when dam failure could result in the loss of human life, and deficient when it is at serious risk of failure. A deficient, high-hazard dam is a tragedy waiting to happen. Also, considering the estimated cost to repair these deficient, high-hazard dams is almost $45 billion, it is apparent that we have a dam crisis on our hands.

About Dams

Lake Mead, impounded by the Hoover Dam, is one of the most popular vacation spots in the country.

Dams provide significant economic and social benefits to society, including flood control, water storage, irrigation, debris control, and navigation. In addition, around 3% of our nation’s dams provide hydroelectric power — a clean, renewable energy source — accounting for 35% of our country’s renewable energy and 10% of our total power needs. And, of course, the most frequent function of dams is recreation. Dams impound eight of the top ten most popular vacation lakes in the United States, accounting for millions of tourist dollars and some of our country’s most beautiful and enjoyable areas.

The Mill River Dam collapse was the first manmade dam disaster and one of the worst of the 19th century. On May 16, 1874, the Mill River Dam in Williamsburg, MA failed, killing 139 people and wiping out four towns in western Massachusetts within one hour.

Catastrophic dam failures have occurred in the United States for well over a century, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people and causing millions of dollars in damages. This year, we narrowly avoided a disaster when California’s Oroville Dam stabilized after threatening to fail. During the crisis, over 188,000 people were displaced due to mandatory evacuations of the area. Although the Oroville Dam crisis thankfully ended without loss of life, the cost to repair the spillway is estimated to be $275 million. In 2003, the Silver Lake Dam in Michigan failed, causing approximately $100 million in property damages and putting over a thousand miners out of work. In 2004, the Big Bay Lake Dam in Mississippi failed, destroying 48 homes and seriously damaging 53 others. In 2006, the Ka Loko Dam in Hawaii failed, killing seven people and releasing nearly 400 million gallons of water, causing significant property and environmental damage.

Click on the image for an interactive map of dams in Massachusetts.

High-hazard dams are cause for concern in every state in the nation. In Massachusetts, 1,453 dams are included in the National Inventory of Dams, 333 of which are high-hazard. Of those, about 50 are classified as “poor” or “unsatisfactory” and in urgent need of repair. If any of these dams were to fail, there is a high likelihood that there would be a loss of human life. Dam failure is most frequently caused by overtopping, accounting for 34% of all dam failures. Causes of overtopping include inadequate spillway design, blocked spillways, settlement of the dam crest, and floods exceeding dam capacity. Other causes of dam failure include foundation defects such as slope instability and settlement (30%); piping, resulting in internal erosion caused by seepage (20%); and other causes including structural failure of materials, settlement and resulting cracking, poor maintenance, and acts of sabotage (16%).

Safety Programs

Draw down and cut off of releases from the damaged spillway at Oroville Dam. Taken on Feburary 27, 2017. Dale Kolke/California Delpartment of Water Resources.

The National Dam Safety Program (NDSP) was signed into law in 1996. NDSP was established to improve safety and security around dams by providing assistance grants to state dam safety agencies to assist them in improving their regulatory programs; funding research to enhance technical expertise as dams are built and rehabilitated; establishing training programs for dam safety inspectors; and creating a National Inventory of Dams. Every state in the nation excepting Alabama has a dam safety program, and 41 states also have Emergency Action Plan (EAP) requirements. A detailed and up-to-date EAP is critical to a successful dam safety program for high-hazard and significant-hazard dams. States without EAP requirements are Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, North Carolina, Vermont, Wyoming, and — believe it or not — California.

Unfortunately, about one-third of our nation’s high-hazard dams lack an EAP. In addition, state dam safety programs are sorely underfunded and understaffed, and many of our nation’s deficient dams are not being repaired or rehabilitated in a timely manner. Why? State dam safety programs provide the inspection, permitting, recommendations, and enforcement authority for 80% of our nation’s dams, yet the average ratio of dams to dam safety inspectors is 207:1. Also, about two-thirds of our nation’s dams are privately-owned. Without enforcement of repair recommendations, some dam owners simply choose not to sink any money into their deficient dam.

The Ka Loko Dam breach in Hawaii resulted in the deaths of seven people, including a pregnant woman and a toddler.

For example, the Ka Loko Dam in Hawaii was privately-owned, and owner James Pflueger was sentenced to seven months in prison in exchange for a plea of no contest to reckless endangering. By entering the plea, prosecutors agreed to drop the seven counts of manslaughter. But admittedly, the dam failure was the result of a series of negligent events. The State of Hawaii, like most states in the nation, had a shortage of dam inspectors, and the Ka Loko Dam had not been adequately inspected. Also, Pflueger performed unpermitted construction activities at the dam, including grading and filling in the spillway. The County of Kauai ordered Pflueger to cease and desist all illegal grading operations, yet Pflueger ignored the order with help from then-Mayor Maryann Kusaka, who served as mayor of Kauai from 1997-2004. He also knew that there was seepage at the dam prior to the failure.

Key Issues 

The Wachusett Dam in Clinton, MA is a high-hazard dam, rated in satisfactory condition.

Clearly, the Ka Loko Dam failure was due to gross negligence and was completely avoidable. To avoid similar tragedies in the future, all of the key issues facing our nation’s dams should be addressed. First and foremost, our country needs to invest in infrastructure and to prioritize funding of dam safety programs. It is imperative that dam safety agencies have adequate personnel and resources to enforce inspection, repair, and rehabilitation recommendations. Also, since two-thirds of our nation’s dams are privately-owned, lack of funding for private dam upgrades is a huge problem. Adequate maintenance and rehabilitation of dams is costly, ranging from thousands to millions of dollars, and many private owners simply cannot afford these costs. Because of the high risk of high-hazard dams, our nation must prioritize funding assistance and loan programs to both public and private owners. It is also crucial that high-hazard dams have an up-to-date EAP, including action plans as well as notification and evacuation procedures, so that authorities are prepared and residents living downstream of the dam are protected. And speaking of residents, public outreach and awareness may be the most critical component of dam safety and awareness. The typical American citizen has no understanding of the role that dams play in our lives, or of the devastation that could come about from a dam failure. Even developers and officials are often in the dark about dams in their own communities. And, of course, everyone needs to understand that all high-hazard dams, no matter how seemingly structurally sound, are potentially dangerous and that there is inherent risk living in a dam break flood-prone area. Also, many of the private dam owners in our country are largely unaware of both their responsibility toward residents and businesses located downstream of their dam and of proper dam maintenance and repair procedures.

In Conclusion

We must change the way we manage our nation’s dams in order to prevent future catastrophes. The recent Oroville Dam crisis should serve as a warning to residents and legislators. As our dams age and climate change increases severe weather events, we must invest in the oversight, funding, and awareness of this critical infrastructure. Until we do, events such as the Oroville Dam crisis and the Ka Loko Dam failure may occur with increasing frequency, resulting in loss of life, environmental damage, and economic disaster.

The Four Most Haunted Dams in the United States

Halloween is just around the corner, and with it comes ghosts, goblins, and all things haunted – even dams. This year, we are taking a look at the four most haunted dams in the United States. Did we miss any? If so, let us know in the comments. Happy Halloween!

This memorial plaque commemorates those who died during the construction of the Hoover Dam
This memorial plaque, located on the Nevada side of the dam near the two winged figures, commemorates those who died during the construction of the Hoover Dam

Haunted Hoover

Arguably the most well-known dam on our list, the Hoover Dam has a long history of haunted happenings. Constructed on the Colorado River on the border between Nevada and Arizona during the Great Depression and one of the Seven Modern Engineering Wonders of the World, the Hoover Dam employed thousands of people at a time when it was needed most. It was not without its problems, however, as 112 workers lost their lives during its construction, although not from being entombed in the concrete during construction as promulgated by one popular urban legend. The deaths occurred in more typical ways such as falling, drowning, and being struck by equipment and debris. In addition to the 112 who perished from industrial accidents, 42 workers were said to have died from pneumonia; however, not a single non-worker in the area died from pneumonia during this time. Workers allege that the construction company made up the whole pneumonia story in order to avoid any lawsuits, as the workers had actually perished from carbon monoxide poisoning while operating vehicles inside the diversion tunnels. Considering that approximately four people per year commit suicide by jumping from the dam as well, it should come as little surprise that tales of spirits and hauntings at the dam are commonplace. There have been numerous reports of crying sounds and footsteps inside the facility, and apparitions of men wearing old-fashioned work clothes have been seen, although no photos have been captured.

The Hales Bar Dam old hydroelectric plant is now used as a dry dock
The Hales Bar Dam old hydroelectric plant is now used as a dry dock

Horrifying Hales Bar

Constructed from 1905-1913 primarily to hold back the whirlpools along the Tennessee River, the Hales Bar Dam in Tennessee was the nation’s first hydroelectric dam. Unfortunately, it was also built on cursed land. According to legend, Native American War Chief Dragging Canoe cursed the land on March 17, 1775 after the controversial Treaty of Sycamore Shoals was signed. He said that the land would be “dark and bloody” to any who attempted to live there. In addition, the waters surrounding the dam were considered sacred by Native Americans. In fact, Native Americans believed that they could see the souls of their ancestors being sucked into one of the largest whirlpools, nicknamed The Suck, and that any who were unfortunate enough to get too close to The Suck would be pulled down into the whirlpool by their dead ancestors. Like the Hoover Dam, legend also says that many workers fell to their deaths during the construction of the dam and were entombed in the concrete, but there are no actual historical accounts to corroborate the legend.

The construction of the dam encountered numerous issues, including soft bedrock and shale on which the dam was constructed; accidents, illnesses, racial tension, and deaths of workers; and even numerous leaks springing up immediately after construction was completed. Also, the town that the creation of the dam flooded contained the old town graveyard, and none of the bodies were disentombed. The Hales Bar Dam never functioned properly, and after a failure in the 1960s, the dam was demolished, flooding the area behind it, which included a cemetery filled with hundreds of graves of mostly children who had died during the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu epidemic. With such a strange history, it is no wonder that the Hales Bar Dam is considered a haunted hotspot. Visitors and employees have seen apparitions and shadows, have heard and seen footsteps that actually kicked up dust, and have heard children’s voices chanting and crying. Some unlucky visitors have even felt hands reach out and touch them from the whirlpool, while others have reported seeing a strange figure in the cat walk, believed to be the restless spirit of War Chief Dragging Canoe himself.


Devil’s Gate Dam

Daunting Devil’s Gate

Devil’s Gate Dam was constructed on the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena, California in 1920 as Los Angeles’ first flood control dam. Where the dam was built was a natural rock formation bearing resemblance to a side profile of a devil, hence the name. The gate, a steel structure that is part of the dam, is believed by some to be a portal to the spiritual world, with some going so far as to say it is one of the Seven Gates of Hell. The reasons for the theory are numerous. Jack Parsons, a rocket scientist who co-founded Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was a practicing occultist who believed the Devil’s Gate Dam to be a portal to the otherworld. He frequently practiced occult rituals, along with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, which some say triggered the opening of the portal. They even went so far as to try to summon a “moonchild,” but were not-so-surprisingly unsuccessful. Furthering the superstition surrounding the dam was the disappearance of four children within a one-year period in the 1950s. Two of the children were never found, while serial killer and road construction worker Mack Ray Edwards confessed to killing the other two and of burying their bodies beneath the asphalt of a newly paved freeway. In addition, Devil’s Gate Dam is part of what is considered Pasadena’s haunted triangle, which includes the dam, the Colorado Street “Suicide” Bridge, and the Enchanted Forest/Cob Estate. The triangle is called Demon’s Gate, and is believed to be the driver of all spiritual activity in the region.

The Teton Dam failure

Terrifying Teton

Constructed on the Teton River in Idaho by the Bureau of Reclamation, the Teton Dam catastrophically failed on June 5, 1976 as it was filling for the very first time. Having only 40 minutes to warn residents prior to the dam’s collapse, 11 people and 13,000 cattle perished in the disaster. Also, thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed and damages were estimated to be about $2 billion. BJ’s Bayou Restaurant was once a hotel that was destroyed during the dam failure and never reopened. It was converted to a restaurant, bar, and residence in the 1980s, and is said to have been haunted ever since its opening. Visitors tell tales of seeing the ghosts of both a young girl and an older man in uniform, both of whom are believed to have been victims of the flood. In addition, the dam itself is said to be haunted by demons as a result of occult activities that took place there, with witnesses reporting having very strongly negative feelings when they are inside the spillway. There is good that came from the Teton Dam failure, however. The Bureau of Reclamation’s Dam Safety Program was instituted in 1978 as a direct result of the disaster. Less than a year later, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was created, and in 1986, dam safety was addressed in the Water Resources Act. FEMA’s National Dam Safety Program, passed in 1996, was the first national legislation to address dam safety, the purpose of which is to “reduce the risks to life and property from dam failure in the United States through the establishment and maintenance of an effective national dam safety program to bring together the expertise and resources of the Federal and non-Federal communities in achieving national dam safety hazard reduction.”

The 10 Largest Reservoirs in the United States

Fort Randall Dam, Lake Francis Case
Fort Randall Dam, Lake Francis Case

10. Lake Francis Case, South Dakota

Lake Francis Case, named after former South Dakota Senator Francis Higbee Case, has a total capacity of 3,800,000 acre-feet, stretches over 100 miles, has a shoreline of 540 miles, an area of 102,000 acres, and a maximum depth of 140 feet. It is impounded by the Fort Randall Dam on the Missouri River in south-central South Dakota and it provides water supply, hydroelectric power, recreation, and an abundant, rich habitat for local wildlife. In fact, Lake Francis Case is home to one of the largest wintering populations of bald and golden eagles.

Authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1944 and built next to Old Fort Randall, a military fort built in 1856, Fort Randall Dam is an earthen embankment dam that underwent construction by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1946. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower flipped the switch that started the first power generating unit, and the project was officially completed in 1956 at a cost of about $200 million.

Sabine River Authority State of Louisiana – Observation Area near Toledo Bend Dam
Sabine River Authority State of Louisiana – Observation Area near Toledo Bend Dam

9. Toledo Bend Lake, Louisiana and Texas

With a total area of about 205,000 acres in both Louisiana and Texas and providing water supply, hydroelectric power, and a plethora of recreational uses, Toledo Bend Lake is the largest human-made body of water in the south and the ninth largest in the United States. Impounded by the Toledo Bend Dam, Toledo Bend Reservoir has a storage capacity of 4,477,000 acre-feet, is 15 miles across at its widest point, has an average depth of 60 feet, is 1,264 miles of shoreline, and its two hydroelectric power generators have an estimated annual energy output of 205 million kilowatt-hours.

In 1949 and 1950 respectively, realizing a need to provide for the future, the Texas and Louisiana State Legislatures each formed their own Sabine River Authority in an effort to both conserve and develop the Sabine River Basin. In the 1950s, the two organizations worked together to come up with the idea of Toledo Bend Lake, and feasibility studies indicated that the project would be a success. Land acquisition and construction took place in the 1960s, and the project was completed in 1969. The total cost, including the land, dam and spillway, powerhouse, new roads and bridges, and the clearing of shorelines, was $70 million. Due to cooperation from investor-owned companies Gulf States Utilities Company, Louisiana Power and Light Company, and Central Louisiana Electric Company, the Toledo Bend Reservoir project did not have federal funding in its permanent financing – the only public water conservation and hydroelectric project to boast such a statistic.

Shasta Dam, Lake Shasta
Shasta Dam, Lake Shasta

8. Lake Shasta, California

With a total capacity of 4,552,000 acre-feet, an elevation of 1,067 feet, 365 miles of mostly mountainous shoreline, and a maximum depth of 517 feet, Lake Shasta is California’s largest reservoir and the eighth largest in the United States. Lake Shasta is impounded by the Shasta Dam, a concrete arch gravity dam across the Sacramento River that stands 602 feet tall, making it the eighth tallest dam in the United States. Operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, the reservoir provides water storage, flood control, hydroelectricity, and protection against the intrusion of salt water.

The Shasta Power Plant contains five huge generators capable of producing 710 megawatts, and recent upgrades have increased their efficiency rating to 98%. Originally built to control the waters of the Sacramento, the McCloud, and the Pit Rivers, the reservoir has since become one of the most popular vacation spots in the western United States. Providing thousands of jobs for people still suffering from the Great Depression, construction on the dam began in 1935 and was completed in 1945.

Libby Dam, Lake Koocanusa
Libby Dam, Lake Koocanusa

7. Lake Koocanusa, Montana

Impounded by the Libby Dam on the Kootenay River, Lake Koocanusa has a total capacity of 5,809,000 acre-feet, stretches 90 miles on the northern part of Montana and into British Columbia, Canada, and has a maximum depth of 370 feet. The reservoir provides water supply to both the United States and Canada, as well as hydroelectric power, flood protection, and wildlife habitat.

Operated by the Army Corps of Engineers in the United States, construction of the Libby Dam was a joint cooperative venture between the U.S. and Canada that began in 1966 and was completed in 1972. The Libby Dam is a concrete gravity dam that stands 422 feet tall and has a gated overflow spillway. The dam’s powerhouse contains five turbines and can generate up to 600 megawatts of power.

Grand Coulee Dam, Lake Franklin
Grand Coulee Dam, Lake Franklin

6. Franklin D. Roosevelt Reservoir (Lake Franklin), Washington

With a total capacity of 9,562,000 acre-feet, Lake Franklin is the largest reservoir and lake in Washington state and the sixth largest in the nation. Impounded by the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, Lake Franklin covers 125 square miles, has over 600 miles of shoreline, and stretches about 150 miles from the Canadian border to the Grand Coulee Dam. The reservoir provides water supply, hydroelectric power, wildlife habitat, and recreation.

Constructed between 1933 and 1941 and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, the Grand Coulee dam is a concrete gravity dam that stands 550 feet tall, stretches almost one-mile long, and has a drum gate spillway. Originally constructed with two power plants, a third power station was added in 1974, and it is now the largest electric power-producing facility in the United States.

Fort Peck Dam, Fort Peck Lake
Fort Peck Dam, Fort Peck Lake

5. Fort Peck Lake, Montana

Boasting a 1,520-mile long shoreline that is longer than the entire coastline of California, Fort Peck Lake stretches 134 miles through central Montana, has a total capacity of 15,400,000 acre-feet, covers an area of approximately 245,000 acres, and has a maximum depth of 220 feet. Impounded by the Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River, Fort Peck Lake provides water quality management, flood control, and hydroelectric power. It also lies within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and is home to a plethora of fish and game.

Operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Peck Dam was a major project of the Public Works Administration as part of the New Deal. The dam was constructed from 1933 to 1943 and the project employed tens of thousands of people. Fort Peck Dam is an art deco hydraulic earthfill dam that stands 250 feet tall, has a controlled overflow spillway with eight bulkhead gates, and has five generating units with a capacity of 185 megawatts. The dam was added to the National Register of Historic places in 1986 and is the largest hydraulically filled dam in the United States. It is also the second largest dam in the world by structure volume, second only to the Tarbela Dam in Pakistan.

Garrison Dam, Lake Sakakawea
Garrison Dam, Lake Sakakawea

4. Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota

Impounded by the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River, Lake Sakakawea has a surface area of 307,000 acres, maximum depth of 180 feet, a shoreline of 1,320 miles, and a total capacity of 18,500,000 acre-feet. It is the largest human-made lake in North Dakota and the fourth largest in the United States. Originally constructed for flood control, navigation, irrigation, and hydroelectric power, the project was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers between 1947 and 1953 and cost approximately $300 million.

Garrison Dam is an earthfill embankment dam that stretches almost two miles in length, stands 210 feet tall, generates 583 megawatts of power, and has a service spillway with 28 controlled gates. It is the fifth largest earthen dam in the world.

Oahe Dam at night, Lake Oahe; photo courtesy of Ashely Lieberman Hughes
Oahe Dam at night, Lake Oahe; photo courtesy of Ashely Lieberman Hughes

3. Lake Oahe, South Dakota

With a surface area of 374,000 acres and a total capacity of 19,300,000 acre-feet, Lake Oahe stretches for 231 miles through South Dakota and is the third largest reservoir in the United States. It provides flood control, irrigation, hydroelectric power, recreation, wildlife habitat, and navigation benefits,

Authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1944, the Oahe Dam underwent construction in 1948 by the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1952, the world’s first rock tunnel boring machine (TBM) was invented specifically for the Oahe Dam project. The significance of James S. Robbins’ TBM invention cannot be overlooked, as it marked the beginning of machines replacing humans for tunneling. The earthfill dam, which is 245 feet tall and 9,360 feet long, impounds the Missouri River, has eight spillways, and is the fifth largest dam in the world by structure volume. The power station is capable of generating 768 megawatts of power and provides electricity for most of the north-central United States. The project, which was completed in 1962 at a total cost of approximately $340 million, was officially dedicated by President John F. Kennedy.

Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell
Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell

2. Lake Powell, Arizona

A breathtakingly beautiful reservoir that attracts over two million vacationers per year, Lake Powell is the second largest reservoir in the United States and is impounded by the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. Lake Powell — which has a capacity of 27,000,000 acre-feet, a surface area of over 161,000 acres, and a maximum depth of 532 feet — provides water storage for the Upper Basin states of the Colorado River Compact, including Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico.

Constructed at a cost of $155 million from 1956 to 1966 by the Bureau of Reclamation, the Glen Canyon Dam is a concrete arch gravity dam that stands 710 feet tall, contains over five million cubic yards of concrete, provides 1296 megawatts of power, and has twin concrete tunnel spillways controlled by double radial gates. The project was dedicated by Lady Bird Johnson on September 22, 1966.

Hoover Dam, Lake Mead
Hoover Dam, Lake Mead

1. Lake Mead, Nevada

Named after Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Elwood Mead, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States, stretching 112 miles long with a total capacity of 28,255,000 acre-feet, a shoreline of 759 miles, and a maximum depth of 532 feet. It provides water supply, hydroelectric power, recreation, and wildlife habitat. Because of prolonged drought and increased demand, Lake Mead — which provides water to over 20 million people in the states of Arizona, Nevada, and California — has not actually reached its full capacity since 1983. In fact, Lake Sakakawea, number four on our list, currently lays claim to the title of largest reservoir by total area and water volume in reserve.

Constructed between 1931 and 1936 by the Bureau of Reclamation at a cost of $49 million, the Hoover Dam impounds the Colorado River to create Lake Mead. As impressive as the reservoir it creates, the Hoover Dam is a concrete gravity arch dam that soars a whopping 726 feet tall, has two controlled drum-gate spillways, and generates an impressive 2,080 megawatts of power. The construction provided jobs for thousands and thousands of workers during the Great Depression and was named, if somewhat controversially, after President Herbert Hoover. It is the second tallest dam in the United States, second only to the Oroville Dam in California.