Estimating the Cost of Dam Repair

A new report estimates the price tag for making needed repairs and upgrades at non-federal U.S. dams is $50 billion.

By William B. Dickinson IV

The Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) estimates the total cost of rehabilitating non-federal dams in the U.S. is $50 billion.

ASDSO, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving dam safety through research, education, and communication, released the estimate in late January. It notes cost estimates for repairs and upgrades have increased significantly since a 2003 ASDSO report. The 2003 report placed the cost at $36 billion.

ASDSO released the new numbers at a time when the new Congress and the Obama administration were working out details of a $787 billion economic stimulus package. The package includes significant appropriations for improving infrastructure, including dams. The final measure provides approximately $150 billion in funding for federal infrastructure improvements.

While it is not yet clear exactly how much of the infrastructure funding will go toward dam repair, the White House said this funding includes a $40 billion, two-year investment to safeguard infrastructure, including dams, roads, bridges, ports, rail, and water systems. Money is included to support more than 2,000 water infrastructure projects.

ASDSO reports state dam safety officials are preparing for a potential influx of needed funds, as state and federal lawmakers begin to focus on infrastructure. Many states, it said, are compiling lists of “shovel-ready” dam rehabilitation projects – those where construction could begin within two to 24 months. ASDSO said it is aware of 272 projects in 21 states meeting that definition. The funding need for those projects alone totals nearly $382 million.

Beyond the appropriations in the economic stimulus package, ASDSO recommends the government establish a federal program to fund dam rehabilitation. The program is envisioned to encourage state funding programs, provide for cost sharing, and stretch funds to maximize the number of dams that will be rehabilitated.

The dam safety group endorses legislation that would provide federal funds to be cost-shared at 65 percent federal to 35 percent state or local for non-federal publicly owned dams. The legislation would provide funds to states based on the number of high-hazard dams.

A focus on high-hazard dams

According to the January 2009 ASDSO report, of the $50 billion needed to rehabilitate non-federal dams in the United States, about one-third – $16 billion – is needed to repair high-hazard structures, both publicly and privately owned. This is up from the $10.1 billion estimate in 2003.

High-hazard dams are defined as those structures whose failure likely would cause loss of human life. Regulators classify a dam based on the downstream consequences should the dam fail or experience a serious incident. The classification has nothing to do with a dam’s condition or safety, ASDSO explained. A high-hazard-potential classification does not mean the dam is deficient, the association added.

Number of problem dams on the rise

There are about 85,000 regulated dams in the U.S., most of which are included in the National Inventory of Dams (NID), maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The latest data from the inventory indicates the number of deficient dams in the U.S. is increasing, up by 36 percent in the past five years, ASDSO said.

In 2006, ASDSO told a congressional oversight hearing the number of dams identified as unsafe was increasing at a faster rate than they were being repaired. The number of unsafe dams grew by 33 percent between 1998 and 2006, to more than 3,300, ASDSO then-president Kenneth Smith testified. Smith told the U.S. House of Representatives’ Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Subcommittee that the situation undoubtedly would continue to worsen without federal leadership and an investment in the safety of U.S. dams.

Now, ASDSO says that, to eliminate the backlog of deficient high hazard-potential dams over ten years, the number of these types of structures repaired will need to be increased by an additional 270 dams per year. That effort, it said, represents an annual cost of $850 million. ASDSO estimates that, in 2007, about $700 million was spent collectively to rehabilitate about 341 dams, citing state data completed that year.

Federally owned dams also in need of repairs

While federal agencies own only about 4 percent of the 85,000 dams in the U.S., those dams also face formidable challenges, the ASDSO report says. The report cites large federal dam rehabilitation projects now in progress, including 198.72-MW Folsom in California, 270-MW Wolf Creek in Kentucky, and 135-MW Center Hill in Tennessee.

At Folsom Dam, the Corps, U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, California Department of Water Resources, and Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency are conducting a multi-year construction program to perform dam safety modifications and expand flood protection.

Funds for dam repair and reconstruction are included in the recently passed U.S. economic stimulus package. The bill includes a $40 billion, two-year investment to safeguard infrastructure, including dams.

An auxiliary spillway is being built to address the hydrologic risk to Folsom Dam identified by Reclamation’s Safety of Dams program. The improvements at the structure also are expected to enable achievement of the Corps’ objective to double flood protection for the city of Sacramento, to cope with a 200-year flood. Once the new auxiliary spillway is complete, the Corps will proceed with other flood control improvements, including a 3.5-foot increase in the height of earthen embankments and modifications to emergency spillway gates. Folsom Dam, on the American River north of Folsom, is part of the federal Central Valley Project.

At Wolf Creek, on the Cumberland River near Jamestown, Ky., the Corps is constructing a concrete seepage barrier. The barrier, or cutoff wall, is being built deep into foundation rock beneath the 5,736-foot-long, 258-foot-tall earthfill and concrete gravity dam. Treviicos Soletanche JV of Boston is constructing the barrier in accordance with a $341.4 million contract from the Corps. The work is scheduled for completion in 2012.

Wolf Creek is one of several dams the Corps has identified as being critically near failure or having extremely high risk for life or economic loss. An independent panel agreed the dam could fail.

At Center Hill Dam, on Caney Fork near Lancaster, Tenn., the Corps is installing a grout curtain seepage barrier. Kiewit-A.C.T. of Little Rock, Ark., a joint venture of Kiewit Southern Co., a subsidiary of Kiewit Corp., and Advanced Construction Techniques Ltd., is completing the work under an $87.4 million contract. Kiewit-A.C.T. is responsible for installing an 800-foot-long grout curtain into the rock foundation of the main dam embankment, building a work surface near the crest of the earthen embankment portion of the dam, and installing a grout curtain into the rock foundation at the left rim of the dam.

In 2006, the Corps approved a $240 million rehabilitation plan that includes the grouting work. Work to improve the dam’s long-term reliability could be completed in 2014, the Corps said.

The 250-foot-tall dam has a history of seepage problems that have worsened in recent years. The Corps included the structure in a group of six dams identified at one time as having a high risk of failure, in a screening program of 130 dams.

Will Dickinson is a senior associate editor for PennWell Corporation’s Hydro Group.

Infrastructure Report Card: Dams Get a ‘D’

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) used ASDSO’s new dam numbers in its 2009 Infrastructure Report Card, also released in late January. In this report card, U.S. dams earned a “D,” the same grade it earned in the previous report card, in 2005.

In the newest report, ASCE identified a five-year investment need of $2.2 trillion from all levels of government and the private sector for the nation’s infrastructure. ASCE said there has been little change in the condition of roads, bridges, drinking water systems, and other public works since its 2005 assessment. During that period, the cost of improvements has increased by more than half a trillion dollars, it added.

The 2009 report card was developed by an advisory council of civil engineers representing the various infrastructure categories, as well as a broad spectrum of civil engineering disciplines. Each category was evaluated on the basis of capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, and resilience. A detailed report was scheduled for release in late March.


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