We all saw the headlines last week, as the tallest dam in the United States threatened to breach catastrophically. Nearly a quarter of a million California residents were forced to evacuate at a moment’s notice, to be safe from the possibility of a 30 foot wall of water rushing down the Feather River.
How did a failure of this magnitude happen in the wealthiest nation the world has ever seen? To put it simply, it was the product of complacency and neglect. Twelve years ago, a number of groups including the Sierra Club requested that the Federal Government reinforce the dam’s emergency spillway with concrete. This request was rejected, with an internal memo stating “[t]he guidelines specify that during a rare flood event, it is acceptable for the emergency spillway to sustain significant damage.” (1)
Before the emergency spillway became a problem, the main spillway had to fail. Again, there were warnings that this would happen. Six months ago, California authorities noticed cracks in the main spillway, which they patched with concrete. There was no investigation of the underlying cause, and no attempt to make a full repair. One civil engineering expert referred to this repair as “patch and pray.” (2)
This should have been even more worrisome considering that this is the third time such repairs have been necessary in just eight years.
Before the main spillway became a problem, the river outflow valve had to be compromised. This valve was in limited use following an incident in 2009 in which a test of the valve’s operation destroyed a breakaway wall and nearly killed several dam workers. (3)
All of these failures and weaknesses were known. All of these problems could have been prevented by proper maintenance, but that proper maintenance was not performed because maintaining a dam is expensive. Unfortunately, as we learned last week, failing to maintain a dam is even more expensive than just fixing the problems when they arise. So what can Virginia do to ensure we’re not the next ones to face catastrophe?
Simply, we must inspect our 2,919 dams more frequently and more thoroughly.
We must make the results of those inspections available to the public. And perhaps most crucially, when the need for repair or modification is discovered, that work must be done with no excuses and no delay.
It won’t be cheap. It will require a massive increase to Virginia’s dam safety budget – the agency currently has just ten full time employees who each oversee nearly 200 state-regulated dams. This lack of funding to our dam safety agencies has led Virginia to get a “C” or “Mediocre” rating from the American Society of Civil Engineers. (4)
Anyone who follows politics in any capacity knows that politicians hate telling people that costs are going to go up. They hate explaining to people where their tax dollars are going, and why it’s important that those dollars keep going there. But I, for one, would much rather explain to a taxpayer today that their money went to dam safety than explain to everyone tomorrow why a dam failed.
Because the cost of today’s maintenance prevents the cost of tomorrow’s disaster.
Lee Carter is a Democratic candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates in the 50th district in Manassas and Bristow.