Raising The Grade: How the 2016 Water Resources Bill Can Help Improve America’s Dams & Levees


In this three-part blog series, we’ll take a look at projects, policy changes and programs included in S. 2848, the Water Resources Development Act of 2016. First up, Dams and Levees

Improving the Nation’s Aging Dams: the National Dam Rehabilitation Program

The early days of dam building across the U.S. provided energy, flood control and reliable drinking water reservoirs. In the late 1970s and early 80s following several high profile dam failures, President Carter ordered a review of dam safety across the U.S. In 1986, following recommendations provided by the Carter-Federal Emergency Management Agency Task Force (FEMA), Congress established a National Dam Safety Program (NDSP) in the 1986 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). For the last 30 years, the NDSP has allowed civil engineers to survey and assess thousands of dams across the nation. We now know there are around 84,000 dams in the U.S. with an average age of 52 years old. The Report Card most recently gave dams a grade of “D.”  4,000 of those dams are deficient. That information is extremely helpful in informing communities of potential risk living within a dam’s potential inundation zone. It’s also helped emergency planners develop action plans in case of failure. However, a shortfall has existed in providing well-rounded dam safety: no federal program to rehabilitate, repair or remove deficient dams. The Water Resources Development Act of 2016 changes that.

Sec. 3004 of WRDA 2016 for the first time will add an important rehabilitation program the NDSP. Under the program high hazard potential dams, would be eligible for grants provided by FEMA. Nonfederal sponsors must contribute at least 35% of the cost of the project and grants are capped at $7.5 million. Finally, for grants over $1 million qualification based selection (QBS) is required. If this program does in fact become signed into law, it will provide a significant step toward improving our nation’s dams.

Strengthening Existing Levee Programs; Building Levees for the Future

Over 100,000 miles of levees stretch across 50 states and the District of Columbia. Behind these thousands of miles of levees sit  trillions of dollars in property assets and hundreds of thousands of lives. Ensuring the safety of our nation’s levees should be a top priority governments and agencies responsible for these critical assets. The Report Card gives levees a “D-” grade.

The Water Resources Development Act of 2014 made great strides to strengthen levee safety by establishing the National Levee Safety Initiative. The program will allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to promote consistent safety standards, create levee safety guidelines and provide funding assistance to states for establishing participating levee safety programs. However the program, which was authorized at $395 million over five years hasn’t yet been funded.

The new WRDA of 2016 take a more targeted approach by strengthening levees in state like California, Missouri and Kansas. It also required further review of potential weakness to levees found in coastal area’s threatened by sea level rise.

The dam and levee programs authorized in WRDA 2014 and proposed in WRDA 2016 are important first steps to strengthening our nation’s flood control infrastructure, they must be followed with significant funding commitments by the President and Congressional appropriators.

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