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Michigan Dam Failure Exposes Critical Flood Threat Throughout the United States

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020

On the evening of May 19th, 2020, massive inflows from two days of heavy rain resulted in the collapse of the Edenville Dam in Midland County, Michigan. This dam failure, followed swiftly by the overflow of the Sanford Dam 10 miles downriver, resulted in the evacuation of over 10,000 local residents, an issue compounded by ongoing social distancing requirements in the particularly COVID-19-stricken Wolverine State. While no casualties have been reported, extensive local flooding caused severe damage to the village of Sanford, with Dow Chemical’s facility in Midland also being affected. Despite experts calling the flooding a “1 in 500-year event”, such dam breaches are becoming an all-too-familiar problem across the United States. And with May 31st being National Dam Safety Awareness Day, it seems appropriate to examine the past, present and future of America’s dams.

Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail

Returning to Michigan, the failing Midland County dams are just the most high-profile examples of the state’s recent struggles. A 2018 report card on Michigan dams by the state chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers found that while the state had improved its D-grade from the society’s 2009 report card, it still had persistent issues.

“There are approximately 2,600 dams in Michigan, of which about two-thirds are older than their typical 50-year design life. In the next five years, about 80 percent of Michigan’s dams will be over 50 years old,” their report stated.

However, while this analysis may paint Michigan as a dam failure hot spot, the reality is quite different. Despite having 19 high-hazard dams in unsatisfactory or poor condition in 2018, Michigan actually ranks 20th among the 45 states and Puerto Rico for which The Associated Press obtained condition assessments.

A Long and Storied History of Dam Failure

Dams have been a major part of American infrastructure for over 150 years. Unfortunately, associated dam failures have been a somewhat regular occurrence over this period. While the statistical likelihood of any of the nation’s 90,000 dams failing is low, examples like Midland County serve to show how maintenance issues and extreme weather can inflict widespread devastation at a moment’s notice. Within living memory, fatal dam breaches have occurred in Hawai’i, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Idaho, South Dakota, Montana, Connecticut and California. And if you exclude fatalities, another 14 states have also experienced some level of dam-related destruction. In fact, the aforementioned NDSAD date of May 31st was selected to commemorate the worst dam failure in U.S. history.

The Great Flood of 1889

On May 31st, 1889, the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River catastrophically failed. The dam broke after several days of extremely heavy rainfall, releasing 14.55 million cubic meters of water. With a volumetric flow rate that temporarily equalled the average flow rate of the Mississippi River, the flood killed more than 2,200 people in nearby Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and accounted for $17 million of damage (about $474 million in 2020 dollars). Tragically, this wasn’t to be the last time Johnstown faced huge suffering from a dam failure. In July, 1977, the failure of the Laurel Run Dam resulted in another 40 deaths and $22 million in damage.

Both the 1889 and 1977 Johnstown Floods, were subsequently found to have resulted from owner negligence, something which has been a recurring theme in dam failures ever since. Thankfully, U.S. law has since changed to more adequately protect civilians from the actions (or lack thereof) of dam owners. However, the cost of maintaining these monolithic structures (and the lack of local oversight) means that little has changed. And this continued risk of dam failure begs the question: why do we even need dams?

The Benefits of Dams

While the high cost, slow construction and failure risk of dams are obvious, the pros definitely outweigh the cons. For example, the most obvious advantage is clean, renewable electricity generation. Hydroelectric power currently provides as much as 12% of the national electricity supply without producing any environmentally hazardous by-products. Such hydroelectric stations also produce energy at a near-constant rate and have a much longer life than thermal power plants.

The water stored in dams is also tremendously useful for irrigation. Over 10% of American cropland is irrigated using dammed water, with thousands of jobs tied to producing dam-irrigated crops. Aside from irrigating crops, dams also store water to irrigate humans. Many dams will supply a portion of their reservoirs for drinking and municipal use. For example, the Warragamba Dam in Australia is the primary reservoir for water supply for Sydney’s three-million-plus population.

Contrary to some of the tragedies listed earlier, dams are also critical for flood control. A well-maintained and safely-operated dam can regulate the flow of water that passes through it, giving security to local residents and businesses. This regulated water flow is also very important for inland navigation with America’s dams providing stable waters for river transportation.

Finally, there are countless examples of dams creating safe areas for recreation. Throughout the U.S, dammed lakes offer boating, fishing and picnic areas, providing necessary social and economic benefits to surrounding communities.

As we have established, a safe and efficient network of dams offer huge environmental, social and economic benefits. We’ve also seen how negligence has played a massive role in undermining confidence in these multi-functional structures. However, CentrAlert is here to help.

CentrAlert Can Protect Your Organization or Community from Dam Failure

As part of CentrAlert’s suite of Adaptive Intelligent Controls, Dam Breach Detect allows the CentrAlert Crisis-Driven Alert & Control (C-DAC) system to recognize and respond to any form of dam breach. Whether you need to monitor water levels, detect structural issues or track upstream issues, Dam Breach Detect has you covered. Dam Breach Detect also offers multiple control options and can work with C-DAC to instantly communicate important issues.

Dam Breach Detect can be adapted to fit any emergency preparedness plan and if you want more information on how CentrAlert can help protect your municipality or organization from dam failures, please click here.



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