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America’s dams are aging. Is it time to take them down?

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In this April 2, 2019, file photo, water flows down the Oroville Dam spillway in Oroville, Calif. The state spent $1.1 billion repairing the Lake Oroville spillway, enacted new emergency plan requirements and launched a review of 93 other dams with similar spillways.

Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Dams were supposed to be safer. 

After three major dams collapsed in the 1970s, leaving a total of 175 people dead, safety precautions, inspections and regulations were put in place. But a two-year investigation by The Associated Press found that at least 1,680 dams in the country are currently a risk for the communities living below the deteriorating structures. 

The news outlet reported that hundreds of dams were in “poor or unsatisfactory condition.” 

Just two years ago, in 2017, the spillway of Oroville Dam in California, the tallest in the nation, suffered severe damage after flooding. Almost 200,000 people were evacuated, and the Sacramento Bee later found that despite California’s robust dam safety inspections, owners of the dams “often allow deficiencies to linger for years.”

In Utah alone, there are at least five dams in poor condition: the Mountain Dell Dam near Salt Lake city and four, small, privately owned dams scattered across the state. Utah has spent $198 million over the past 20 years repairing 55 dams and still has 84 dams on its “fix-it list” according to The Associated Press. 

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Flooding from the Twentyone Mile Dam in Elko County, Nevada, is seen on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

Old age is hard to beat. In the United States, many of the structures that were once engineering marvels are nearing the age most humans decide to retire. Despite steadily increased budgets for dam repair and maintenance, over the past four decades more than a 1,000 have failed — suddenly releasing huge amounts of water.

Although some dams are having critical maintenance done, states and private entities are also coming up with a different solution: take them down. 

Dams helped build the West, but their value is now being questioned. It would cost more than $64 billion to repair the federal and nonfederal dams across the country according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, while The Associated Press estimated the cost would be closer to $70 billion. And when private companies and states look at the costs and benefits of dams, the equation is increasingly coming out in favor of their removal.

California, once a bastion of dam building, took down 35 dams just last year, making it the leader in dam removals in 2018. 

With new questions being raised about the safety of America’s dams, the conversation may shift from repairing them, to figuring out how to speed up their demise. 

The desert would bloom

Dams were erected for a few purposes — water storage, flood control, irrigation and hydroelectric power. In the West, mining and agriculture were the main drivers of dam construction. 

There was money to be made by harnessing water in the typically arid states. According to a report by the Bureau of Reclamation, during the 1880s, the area of irrigated land in the arid West increased “four-or-five fold.” In order to maintain the booming agriculture business and growing populations, greater water storage would be needed. Diverting water for power and agriculture was considered “conservation” of resources. 

“There was a time when we thought the best use of a river was to control it, harness it, dam it and divert it,” explained Amy Kober, vice president of communications of American Rivers, a nonprofit that advocates for river restoration. 

In the early 20th century, the environmental impacts of dams were also not at the forefront of their creators’ minds. In 1917, one newspaper described a proposed dam like this: “A power plant which for economy of power production and perfection of mechanical detail cannot be equaled anywhere in the country.”

The desert would bloom. 

The largest dam projects would come with the ascent of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the 1930s was the era of big dams. The Hoover Dam in Nevada, Bonneville in Oregon and Grand Coulee in Washington were all completed during his presidency. 

But, there were also clear winners and losers when the dams went up. The livelihood of tribes that depended on fishing was decimated. Cattle ranchers whose herds grazed along the banks of rivers were moved to make way for the imposing reservoirs that would fill the land. Over time, the dams wreaked environmental havoc on rivers, resulting in depleted salmon populations and persistent algae blooms.

Edwin Hederly, a California Fish and Game Commission employee, expressed concern about the spawning runs of salmon in the state’s rivers as early as 1923. Unlike many of his peers, Hederly believed nature’s design for California’s rivers was better than what humans could devise. 

Different values — a future with less conservation

In some ways, a dam is like a car, Upmanu Lall, a professor and director of the Water Center at Columbia University, said. The manufacturer creates the car with a specific lifespan in mind. At a certain point, the car starts to run down, and the costs of repair outweigh the vehicle’s value. 

Hydroelectric dams have particularly come under fire during the past two decades, as the cost of their operation becomes greater than the profits to be made from their power generation. Other forms of renewable energy and the low cost of natural gas have made their contribution to the electric grid negligible in some regions. There are currently about 1,000 hydroelectric dams regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and over 53 hydropower operations run by the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the country’s largest, “multi-purpose,” dams that produce more than 30 megawatts of electricity.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is in charge of issuing operating licenses for hydroelectric dams — which are usually set at around 50 years. Almost 190 dams licenses are set to expire within the next few years, and their owners will have to decide whether to comply with new environmental regulations, pay for repairs or take them down. 

“Someday, down the road, if we don’t remove the dams, they will have to be addressed,” said Paul Houser, a professor in the department of geography and geoinformation science at George Mason University and former Bureau of Reclamation employee. 

That’s what the power companies are looking at. They can make money on it right now and for the next few decades, but eventually, we’re going to have to spend more money than it’s worth, Houser said. 

That time is coming, or really, it’s here. 2018 was a record-breaking year for dam removals according to American Rivers, which maintains a database of dam removals in the United States. Ninety-nine dams were taken down last year, and 2017 followed close on its heels with 91 removals.

Each dam removal is unique, a massive feat in reverse engineering, and expensive. “There’s still a lot we don’t know, but we know a lot more than we did five years ago, and we know a lot more than we did 10 years ago,” said Amy East, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who worked on several large dam removals. 

Scientists and engineers are still figuring out how to take down the concrete structures, and how to navigate the wild and human environments that have taken shape around them.

Lall, at the Columbia University Water Center, explained that there’s another element of dam removals that will come to a head in the coming years: what will the communities that have come to rely on them do?

There are safety and economic changes afoot, but there’s also a cultural shift which those who have lived along the reservoirs, or relied on irrigation farming are acutely aware of. 

They see it differently. As one rancher in California explained, the dams once gave his community power, and “It’s a hard pill to swallow to see good infrastructure taken out.”

But as some dams hit their 100th birthdays, the chances of that infrastructure remaining good look bleak.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly reported that the rise of big dams accompanied the ascent of Theodore Roosevelt. It should have read Franklin D. Roosevelt.