Dam Collapses Should Be No Surprise

By Nancy Spannaus

May 21, 2020—The collapse of the Edenville and Sanford dams in Michigan this week should come as no surprise. On the one hand, the Edenville Dam had already had its license revoked by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), for reasons including the total insufficiency of its provisions for surviving severe rainfall. On the other, these two earthenware dams built in the 1920s are among the tens of thousands of dams deemed hazardous throughout the United States.

The Edenville Dam collapse.

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 report card graded the status of U.S. dams at D-. (In Michigan, it was a C-) That’s pretty dam low. As of that writing, the United States had 90,580 dams; their average age was 56 years. Due to lack of investment and repair, 17% of those dams are deemed to be “high-hazard,” meaning that devastating results for the surrounding region can be expected if the dam should collapse. And the number is going up every year.

Add to this the fact that, unlike most other basic infrastructure, a majority of dams in the United States are privately owned. The figure is 56%, with the majority of the rest of the dams owned by states and localities, not the Federal government. Of course, these dams are subject to regulation by the states they are in, or by FERC, if they produce electricity. However, as in the case of the Edenville Dam, regulatory disapproval does not necessarily lead to corrections of the problems.

When FERC ordered the Boyce Hydro company, owner of the Edenville Dam, to stop power generation in November 2017, it noted that the company had failed to make recommended repairs and improvements for 13 years!

In the case of Edenville, the local counties stepped in to take over the dam, coming to a purchase agreement in 2019. One might expect that an earthen embankment dam like Edenville should be replaced by a more modern facility, among other things. At that point, however, the most thorny problem will arise—lack of long-term, low-interest credit to make the necessary improvements.

Even when Congress passes water improvement bills, such as the WIIN Act of 2016, it frequently refuses to appropriate the funds required.

The First Bank of the United States in Philadelphia

Leaving our vital infrastructure to this on-again, off-again process points again to the necessity of a Hamiltonian National Infrastructure Bank, backed by Federal government credit, but devoted strictly to investing in modernizing our infrastructure in projects like high-speed rail, broadband, urban water systems, and dams. Ideas for such a bank are currently a matter of active discussion in Washington and around the nation.

Will action be taken, before another dam collapse devastates the surrounding communities?