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Darrell Berkheimer: Some frightening facts about risks from dams

Darrell Berkheimer

Which is more important: Building more dams – or protecting the lives of millions of folks living below the dams we already have?

And then there is the big question: Should we even build more dams?

That question was raised in an op-ed reprinted by YubaNet, which includes a list of seven reasons why we should stop building dams, and focus on other sources for electricity.

These questions are being raised as four of our Northern California lawmakers are speaking in favor of building more dams. Their comments were reported in a front page article in The Union on Saturday, Feb. 25 – titled “Lawmakers make case for more dams.”

California has more than 1,500 dams, and more than half – 52 percent – are listed as high hazard… In addition, more than 500 of those California dams – 36 percent – lack emergency plans.

Only 12 days earlier, a USA Today report indicated millions of lives may be at risk below 15,500 dams across the U.S. that are listed as “high hazard.” In addition, no emergency plan has been drafted for 31 percent of those high hazard dams, the article added.

A high hazard rating means at least one or more persons could die if a dam were to fail. And we learned that more than 180,000 lives are at risk if the Oroville Dam fails.

Using data provided by the Army Corps of Engineers and American Society of Civil Engineers, the article reported our nation has 84,000 dams, and that more than 90 percent of them were built between 1950 and 1980. Their average age is 52.

Many of the aging dams were built as low-hazard structures to protect undeveloped agricultural land. But with increasing population and greater development below, the numbers of high hazard dams continues to rise, the civil engineers society reported.

“In California, the problem is especially widespread,” USA Today observed.

California has more than 1,500 dams, and more than half – 52 percent – are listed as high hazard, according to the National Inventory of Dams database. In addition, more than 500 of those California dams – 36 percent – lack emergency plans.

Nationwide, almost two-thirds of U.S. dams are privately owned. But more than three-quarters of the high-hazard dams are state regulated, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

The association reported one of the biggest challenges is getting enough money to provide regular inspections and enforcement. Inspections have revealed at least one in seven of the high-hazard dams need remediation. And perhaps more regular inspections will reveal additional dams needing work.

Meanwhile, extreme weather conditions are expected to continue, creating more flooding and placing extended stress on our nation’s dams.

The extreme weather and potential flooding are two of the seven reasons why we should stop building dams, according to the article published on the YubaNet website. It was written by Gary Wockner, who earned his PhD in environmental geography.

Yes, I know, “environmentalist” is nasty word to some folks. But environmentalists care; and sometimes they are right.

Also, Wockner is not the only one advising against building more dams. A team of advocates from California’s Friends of the River posted a column in the San Francisco Chronicle titled, “To Avoid Catastrophe, Don’t Build More Dams.”

But to return to Wockner’s other five reasons, they include declining water quality, which he attributes to toxic algae in the reservoirs — and in the reduced flow of waters both upstream and downstream.

He also cites methane emissions from the reservoirs, evaporation, blocked sediment, and submerged acres “of previously carbon sequestering grasslands, forests, and farmlands, further escalating the greenhouse gas problem.”

The op-ed adds some details to each of his seven reasons. For instance, regarding evaporation, he cited a worldwide report from the United Nations estimating that reservoirs evaporate more water than humans are consuming.

I don’t have enough knowledge to say whether we should, or should not, continue to build dams. But I do believe a top priority for our taxpayers’ money should be spending it to make all the dams we already have safe for the people living below them.

And perhaps, in some cases, the dams should be removed if the cost of modernizing is more than the value reaped from the dam. I’ve watched that happen at two small hydroelectric dams in Pennsylvania and Montana.

After all, why do we build dams to begin with?

We build them to provide services that will help improve the lives of our citizens. And then those dams need to be inspected periodically to assess their continuing ability to safely serve our citizens.

But when dams become threats to the lives of those same citizens, isn’t it time to spend money to remove those threats — before spending money to build more dams?

Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a biweekly column published by The Union. Contact him at mtmrnut@yahoo.com.


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