Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Texas paper points out risks of many dams, lack of state inspection, public records and awareness

Federal Emergency Management Agency map; click on it to see a larger version
The near-disaster at California's Oroville dam and the disaster of Hurricane Harvey in Texas prompted the Austin American-Statesman to do what news outlets all over the country should do on a regular basis: alert their audiences to the dangers of dams that are classified as "high hazard" by state and federal officials.

Texas has "several hundred substandard dams upstream of populated areas in Texas that violate state law intended to guard against dam breaching, or failure, in catastrophic floods," Ralph K.M. Haurwitz reports. "The adequacy of hundreds more dams that could put people in harm’s way is unknown because they haven’t been studied. . . . A state law passed by the Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Rick Perry in 2013 permanently exempts 45 percent of the dams in Texas from inspections and other safety requirements because of their relatively small size and rural locations."

Awareness of the risks appears to be low. "Few people who could be at risk are aware of the hazard of living in what engineers call the potential inundation zone, which includes areas well outside the 100-year flood plain," Haurwitz writes. "Lack of public awareness about the hazards posed by dams is no accident. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, federal and state officials, citing security concerns, have restricted the ability of news organizations and the public to obtain information about the hazards posed by many dams."

And the problem in Texas is probably worse that it might seem, because the state "applies its strictest safety standards only if a dam’s failure would probably cost seven or more lives," the Statesman reports. Some states doubtless do likewise. What about yours?

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