States will soon be inundated with federal money to meet a pent-up need to repair, improve or remove thousands of aging dams across the United States, including some that could flood cities or neighborhoods if they were to fail.
The roughly $ 3 billion for dam-related projects is paltry compared to the tens of billions of dollars spent on roads, railways and high-speed internet in the $ 1,000 billion infrastructure plan signed on Monday by President Joe Biden. But it is much more than what the dam projects had obtained.
The money could “kickstart some of these improvements that need to be made to make dams as safe as possible,” said David Griffin, director of Georgia’s Safe Dams program and president-elect of the Association of. State Dam Safety. Officials.
The United States has more than 90,000 dams, on average dating back more than half a century. An Associated Press analysis in 2019 identified nearly 1,700 dams in 44 states and Puerto Rico that were in poor or unsatisfactory condition and classified as high risk, meaning their failure would likely result in fatal flooding. The actual number is almost certainly higher, as some states have refused to provide full data for their dams.
Although many large dams are maintained by federal or state agencies, most of the country’s dams are privately owned. This makes their repair more difficult, as regulators have little influence over dam owners who do not have the money to make the repairs or simply neglect the necessary fixes.
Over the past decade, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided more than $ 400 million for projects involving dams, primarily to repair damage from natural disasters. But until just a few years ago, there was no national program focused solely on improving the thousands of dams overseen by state and local entities.
FEMA’s Potentially High-Risk Dam Rehabilitation Grant program allocated $ 31.6 million among 36 participating states between 2019 and 2021. This amount, appropriated by Congress, was barely one-fifth of what had been authorized under a federal law of 2016.
The infrastructure bill provides more than 18 times that amount, injecting $ 585 million into the hazardous dam program, of which $ 75 million is earmarked for their removal. Due to administrative requirements, FEMA said new funds would likely not begin to flow to states until fiscal year 2023, which begins October 1, 2022. Previous grants have often been sufficient to cover only expenses. engineering or planning.
This funding will allow significant increases in the number and quantity of actual dam rehabilitation and removal projects that current funding levels have not allowed, said David Maurstad, FEMA deputy associate administrator for insurance and attenuation.
Repairing and upgrading 14,343 non-federally owned high-risk dams could cost more than $ 20 billion, according to an estimate by the Dam Safety Association.
The program isn’t really meant to fix all of them, but it will definitely help fix some of the worst of them, ”said Mark Ogden, a former Ohio Dam Safety Officer who is now a specialist. association technique. improve public safety. “
Infrastructure legislation also provides $ 148 million for FEMA to distribute to state dam safety offices a significant increase from the $ 6-7 million per year that has been distributed among states. The new funds could help states hire more staff or consultants to assess dam safety and develop emergency action plans. All states except Alabama have a dam safety program, but many are underfunded and understaffed, creating a backlog of work.
After dam ruptures resulted in flooding that forced the evacuation of about 10,000 people in Michigan last year, a review by the Dam Safety Association found that the Office of Civil Servants State dams were extremely understaffed and had not invested in dam safety “for several decades.
Michigan responded by increasing its budget. A state spending plan that went into effect last month includes $ 13 million for grants to repair and remove dams and $ 6 million for an emergency fund that could be used when dam owners are unwilling or unable to make repairs. It also includes money to hire more staff for the dam safety program.
Additional funds for dams are scattered throughout federal infrastructure legislation.
The Bureau of Reclamation will receive $ 500 million over five years for its dam safety program, a 50% increase from its current annual allocation. The money is likely to go to major renovation projects at the BF Sisk Dam on the San Luis Reservoir in California and the El Vado Dam in New Mexico, said Bob Pike, head of Dam safety. repair. This will free up further funds to speed up repairs to about 20 other high-risk dams in the footprint of the office of 17 Western states, he said.
The reclamation will get an additional $ 100 million for repairs to some old dams. An additional $ 118 million will fund dam repairs through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. And $ 75 million will go through the US Army Corps of Engineers for a loan program to repair dams.
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