Alabama Needs a State Dam Safety Program


Op-ed by Shelia Montgomery-Mills, President of the Birmingham Branch of the America Society of Civil Engineers. Originally published in the Birmingham News, April 13, 2013.

Alabama continues to be the only state in the country without a state dam safety program. We do not know precisely how many dams we actually have, much less their condition. That is unacceptable for our state and unacceptable for Alabama’s security, public safety, and ultimately the economy.

This week, Congressman Patrick Maloney (D-NY) introduced the National Dam Safety Act of 2013. The dam safety re-authorization would provide grants for inspections, research, and public awareness to the 49 states that currently have a dam safety program, meaning Alabama is the only state not eligible for any of these funds. As our nation takes this critical step, it should serve as a stark reminder that, when considering dam safety, our state is woefully behind the rest of the country.

In the recently released 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers awarded our country’s infrastructure a D+. The 2013 Report Card is a comprehensive assessment of the nation’s infrastructure across 16 sectors and also includes the amount of investment required to make the necessary improvements.  The grades are quite similar to those in most education systems, A’s are great and D’s are poor.   Updated once every four years, this year’s Report Card found that America’s infrastructure actually went up from a D grade in 2009.  The cost to bring all categories up to a B level by 2020 would cost the nation $3.6 trillion between now and 2020.  Despite the improvement, a D+ is unacceptable.  We must find ways to raise the grade and act now.

The 2013 Report Card awarded our nation’s Dams a D. Currently the average age of the 84,000 dams in the country is 52 years old and the total number of high-hazard dams continues to rise.   It is important to understand that high-hazard refers to the strong likelihood of significant economic losses and potential loss of human life if a dam fails.  To repair just the nation’s aging, high-hazard dams the Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that it will require an investment of $21 billion.

While the 2013 Report Card paints a poor picture for the country, it paints an even worse scenario for Alabama in the category of dams. In our state, we cannot begin to calculate our needs because we have no entity responsible for accounting for this critical infrastructure. Alabama’s state legislature should at the very least act to take an inventory of dams in the state and assess their potential risk to life and property.  How can Alabama hope to build a 21st century economy when we do not have the regulations in place to secure and protect our communities and neighborhoods?

Many states did not enact legislation for dam safety until loss of life and significant property and infrastructure damage occurred.  Dam failures have occurred in Alabama, many more near failures have occurred than anyone can account for.  Without regulations in place, there is no requirement to report the incidents.  We are fortunate to have the opportunity to act before a major disaster occurs.  We should learn from the experiences of other states and act swiftly to protect our citizens as well as our economy.

Strong infrastructure is linked to a strong economy. Better roads and bridges mean businesses can move goods more efficiently, decreasing costs, and reducing prices. More capable businesses create greater profits, which in turn creates new jobs and opportunities for economic growth.

Companies want to do business in states with reliable infrastructure. If they have to worry about roads being closed, ports being unable to move their goods, or the energy grid failing, then businesses will take their jobs elsewhere. And when a dam fails, critical infrastructure is put into jeopardy, costing businesses and Alabamians thousands, while also putting the public at a great, and arguably unnecessary, risk.

The state of Alabama is not keeping pace with other states, and the fact that we do not even have the regulatory processes in place to account for our state’s dams is unacceptable. We must take the next step in at least knowing where all of our dams are located and determine their condition. This will by no means change our fortunes overnight, but it will at the very least allow Alabama to compete on the same level as the rest of the country.

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